Memphis Beat Pilot – It’s Alright Mama (S01E01) – Episode review

“Have mercy.” Two words uttered by Jason Lee’s character in the opening scenes of Memphis Beat. And even sitting down to watch this, I feel the fatigue of the jaded television reviewer, watching a show that sounds patently ludicrous.

Coming off the back of the wonderful My Name Is Earl, I’ve got a lot of love for Jason Lee. I even watched Heartbreakers for the 23rd time the other night. Admittedly that was more about Jennifer Love Hewitt than Lee’s minor role before he became Earl. Or Dave from Alvin and the Chipmunks.

In Memphis Beat, Lee plays a detective who moonlights as an Elvis tribute act. It’s those words that make my heart sink. How did Nicolas Cage not score this role? Why would anyone think this is a good idea?


One hour later…

Well, no. I’m not going to climb down completely from the three paragraphs above. Thankfully, Jason Lee wasn’t rocking ridiculous sideburns, or catching criminals in a diamanté catsuit. Even his Elvis songs at the end weren’t an attempt to be soundalike of The King.

What this first episode did was pulled in a little bit of Memphis legend in the shape of Dotty Collins, a elderly woman who was once a Memphis DJ and who played her part on the music explosion in the area in the 50’s and 60’s. Caught wandering around, she turns up in the police precinct and Lee’s character, Dwight Hendicks, is tasked with getting her returned home safely. It’s when serious bruises are discovered on her body that the police begin to suspect foul play.

The episode sets us up with all the requisites for a pilot – new lieutenant for Hendricks to clash with, which he does in fine style. A handful of colleagues who trust Hendricks’ methods and speak up for him when the Lieutenant is giving him a hard time. He’s got a mother who’s ickily dating again, and seems to have just come out of a divorce. And, of course, he moonlights in an Elvis tribute act.

Quite a competent start to the series, if I say so. It’s hard to be bullish about the show’s prospects when it seems like a concept straight out of the 80’s. Police procedurals are kind of old hat these days, right?

On the other hand, I liked how the writers wove the history of Memphis into the fabric of the episode. I wonder how often they can repeat that trick. And the forthcoming episodes appear to be based on the titles of classic songs – I recognize a few Elvis songs among them. The soundtrack itself is fantastic. I was loving the blues and soul sounds they brought in, especially James Brown’s It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World, just as Hendricks is about to get reamed by his female boss!

A stronger pilot episode than yesterday’s The Gates, we’ll keep watching for a bit longer to see how this one develops. And just to leave you with a quote from the episode…

“Dotty Collins, she is Memphis…If it weren’t for Dotty Collins playing a certain Sam Cooke song on a certain afternoon with the weather just right for it, your daddy might not have given your mama that long look. He might not have taken her in his arms. You might not have been born at all.”

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