Buckets of sweat and an emphasis on blues music aside, there’s not much to distinguish the shopworn detective procedural formula of “Memphis Beat.” Jason Lee’s first series since “My Name Is Earl” marks a departure from the comedic work he’s best known for, but will need all of Earl’s luck and more than a little viewer generosity to stand out in TNT’s crowded summer drama schedule.
Lee slips not-so-comfortably into the role of Det. Dwight Hendricks, the kind of cop who doesn’t always play by the rules but loves his Memphis hometown almost as much as he loves his mama. Hendricks’ impeccable instincts inevitably clash with the by-the-book demands of his new superior, Tanya Rice (Alfre Woodard, still searching for a series worthy of her talents after back-to-back failures “My Own Worst Enemy” and “Three Rivers”).
Those who remember the unconventional chemistry Lee and Woodard shared in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1999 film “Mumford” will be disappointed to see the pair reduced to bickering over a “boob lamp” — a light shaped like a woman’s pasty-clad torso, with a lampshade for a head — which Hendricks claims cheers up his colleagues. And while Rice’s counterpoint is a good one, that “there are women who work here who don’t want their papers illuminated by plastic nipples,” the identity of these women remains a mystery: Hendricks’ co-workers — including his partner “Whitehead” (Sam Hennings) and gangly protege Davey Sutton (DJ Qualls) — are all men, who back his every move.
Bulk of the pilot is devoted to the rote investigation of a vaguely offputting crime involving elder abuse against a legendary local deejay. Requisite interrogation scenes represent a low point that threatens to push the action into self-parody — a surprise, given the stewardship of director Clark Johnson, who also helmed the groundbreaking pilot for “The Shield.”
Everything about “Beat,” from the accents to the Elvis impersonators lining the police station, from Hendricks’ after-hours hobby singing at a bar to his underdeveloped co-workers, suggests a series working too hard to achieve the evocative atmosphere and offbeat characters that come so effortlessly in FX’s superior Southern-set drama “Justified.”
If husband-and-wife creators Joshua Harto (an actor-turned-writer) and Liz Garcia (“Cold Case”) want to keep viewers coming back for more, they’ll need to amp up the mysteries or flesh out the characters, and fast. That’s assuming, perhaps incorrectly, the boob lamp contingent isn’t enough to support a basic-cable series.