I just finished watching the season finale of "Memphis Beat," a new cop drama on TNT. I almost gave up on the show several times. The acting is not great, the dialogue can be downright wooden but I found myself staying with it because I truly did like "the beat."
The music selection is sensational. Where do I rank on "The Shallow Scale" by admitting this?
Jason Lee plays the lead role as Det. Dwight Hendricks, a more than slightly clichÃ©d character of the dedicated policeman with a softer side. Lee, most famous for portraying "Dave" in "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and as Earl in television's "My Name is Earl," has his moments but isn't entirely convincing as a lawman. His writers do him no favors, either, shackling him with lines like, "M'aam, we'll do whatever we have to do to make sense of this thing."
When I saw the show had cast Alfre Woodard as Lt. Tanya Lee, I had seriously high hopes. Lee is a multiple Emmy winner for guest performances in "L.A. Law" and "The Practice," and she turned in a riveting portrayal as Dr. Roxanne Turner being interrogated by detective Frank Pembleton (played by the incomparable Andre Braugher) on "Homicide." But the desired chemistry between the lieutenant and Det. Hendricks just isn't there.
Woodard huffed and puffed mightily in the early episodes trying to come off as the no nonsense squad leader putting the detective in his place but the emotion was not believable. She also had to soldier on, reciting hackneyed writing.
"Cut down in the prime of life. Life can be cruel," said Lt. Lee in a recent episode, to which detective Hendricks replied, "God can't be that twisted."
Compare the religious references in that script to the superbly dark "Rescue Me." Lead character Tommy Gavin (Dennis Leary) was trying to cure his alcoholic daughter with some tough love, dunking her head into a baptismal fountain full of booze at a church altar. He looked up at a crucifix, staring at the face of Christ.
"Stop lookin' at me! You never had kids!" Gavin said, while submerging his daughter.
Now that's writing.
But it was "The Beat" that kept me coming back. A late season episode opened with a bar fight then segued to the detectives being called to a murder scene which ended with an ambulance carting away the victim. All of this took about 5 minutes. In that span, the soundtrack featured "I Thank You," by ZZ Top, "Love and Happiness" from Al Green and "It's Bad, You Know," from the late legendary Delta bluesman R.L. Burnside.
There wasn't a lot of dialogue but I didn't care. Those tunes mixed with a few Memphis beauty shots and action sequences had me hooked for the rest of the hour. Good heavens! Has my internal aesthetic sensibility meter gone out for good?
I suppose this is not the first show saved by cool songs. TV historians will point to "Miami Vice" as the forerunner of that genre. More recently, HBO's "Treme" featured tremendous New Orleans blues that greatly augmented a somewhat sluggish story line (although the acting and the players were terrific) and certainly "Glee" has succeeded largely due to its musicality.
And cool songs have saved Memphis Beat. TNT just renewed it for another season.
"Why can't we help each other in Memphis?" said Det. Hendricks (whose character is also a musician who sings Elvis songs. Lee sometimes sings better than he acts) as he walked away from a crime scene. Well, Dwight, you can help each other by hiring better writers. But keep the people who pick your music. They've definitely got the beat.
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