Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Memphis Beat, Pilot Episode

Posted By on Tue, Jun 22, 2010 at 4:36 PM

“Have mercy.” The utterance — the first line in the new TV show Memphis Beat — drips with 50-plus years of pop cultural associations about music-blooded regular folk who made the big time and about those living a sweet slow life content with the small time.

Is this what Memphis is? Memphis Beat thinks so. The show, premiering tonight on TNT at 9 p.m. and airing on Tuesdays throughout the summer, embraces these associations. The extent to which you, as a Memphian, or you, as a neophyte, can live with the portrayal will determine the level of your enjoyment. (By the way, look for Chris Herrington’s Flyer cover story, out tomorrow, about the city from Mystery Train to Memphis Beat.)

Based solely on the pilot, titled “That’s Alright, Mama,” the show is a failure on multiple levels and a success on others. Jason Lee (My Name is Earl) stars as Memphis police detective Dwight Hendricks, an unconventional investigator who performs hometown songs for big crowds at night. His day and nighttime jobs are full of one thing: love for Memphis.

The pilot deals with the police investigation of the abuse of an elderly woman, who just so happens to be Dottie Collins, a legendary local radio DJ who inspired generations to idolize that hometown rock and soul. It’s here where the real Memphis and the fictional Memphis diverge: The “all-girl” radio station WHER did indeed exist, but it shut down in the early ’70s. In the Memphis Beat universe, it continues to thrive to present day. (A WHER tower predominates over the city skyline.) If only.

Among those most appreciative is Hendricks, who idolized Collins and feels she changed the course of his life. Giving a pep talk to the uniformed police rank and file, Hendricks says, “Y'all are here because you care about Memphis, am I right? Well, Dottie Collins, she is Memphis.”

You could take offense at regional inaccuracies. The show’s a little off about Memphis the way The Blind Side was. It's written and produced by Non-Memphians (among them George Clooney and Grant Heslov) and filmed elsewhere (New Orleans, though there’s lots of second unit stuff of a neon-lit downtown). Elvis impersonators litter the streets like glam panhandlers. Lee wields a homespun drawl and grit-eating grin that’s a little put upon.

And, strictly on the basis of the pilot as a police procedural, you have to shake your head sometimes. The script’s central mystery is full of holes and relies upon shoddy policework to keep the plot moving forward. That’s just lazy.

There’s clichés, too. Alfre Woodard plays Tanya Rice, the new ball-busting department chief that Hendricks and the other coworkers have to suffer. Woodard’s good enough, though, to keep her character’s head above the water. DJ Qualls plays Sutton, an incompetent young officer who wants to bask in the glow of Hendricks streetwise, smart individualism. (I kinda like Qualls in it, though.) Another character, a police sergeant played by Abraham Benrubi, looks like a hippy and “uses Chickasaw tribal wisdom in his police work,” according to the show’s official website. This is all a little much to take, right?

Me, I think Memphis Beat is the best thing to happen to the city in the national zeitgeist since Three 6 Mafia brought the house down at the Academy Awards ceremony.

With the show, Memphis joins the ranks of Hawaii in Magnum, P.I., Miami in Dexter, CHiPs in L.A., and 50 more examples not off the top of my head: memorable in part for the place they’re set in as much as for the characters and plots they feature. Further, they’re memorable for adding to the connotations and legacy of the place without bearing the burden of actually being accurate. Did anyone in 1981 expect that Hawaiians were driving around Oahu in Ferraris, fighting crime? Nope, but images like that get added to the cultural Tower of Babel about a place, as important to how its perceived as the reality.

Memphis Beat may just mark the moment when Memphis finally grows up and becomes a big city, joining the ranks of all the other major American cities that are able to sustain sub-par, inauthentic fiction and keep on trucking. Watching it, it was too much fun seeing the enthusiasm to worry about how much of it was wrong.

Memphis Beat is the anti-Treme, that near-great HBO show about New Orleans that just wrapped airing it’s first season. Treme promises NOLA in the blood, ripped from the headlines, true to life as a documentary. Memphis Beat glories in a fictional Memphis that never was: citizens stuck in Bizarro 1964, with a genuine level of appreciation for its musical and artistic legacy that’s vintage 1999.

The prospect of a high-profile show that tackles Memphis-centric mysteries on a weekly basis is thrilling. Keb' Mo' provides instrumental musical flourishes that fill in the space between one great Memphis tune after another. If the show has the budget and it runs for long enough, the music supervisor may dig deep enough into the catalog to dust off some true overlooked gems.

Rejoice, Memphis. The characters may not eat right or be conversant in contemporary European cinema, but we treat our mommas with respect and we’re a whippy bunch. Memphis Beat might not be the show we want, but it’s probably the one we deserve.

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