Why Jason Lee toned down the Elvis impersonation on TNT’s ‘Memphis Beat’

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As novel as it may sound to have the main character in a crime drama be a crack detective by day and an Elvis impersonator by night, the concept turned out to be too quirky on TNT’s “Memphis Beat.” So for Season 2, launching June 14, series star Jason Lee said the Elvis-worshipping side of his Southern lawman will play backup to his work and relationships. He’ll still strum his guitar in the squad room and break into song at a fellow cop’s wake, but his Det. Dwight Hendricks will be more grounded and less cartoonish.

“He’s a dude from the South who loves his city, his mom, his music,” Lee said recently. “He’s not like a guy on Hollywood Boulevard in a Superman costume.”


“Memphis Beat,” set in the music-infused Tennessee town but shot mostly in New Orleans, has had to dispel the misconception that it’s about a singing detective in a white jumpsuit and slicked pompadour. Lee’s character never dressed up as Elvis -- sorry, sight-gag fans -- and he didn’t dole out a single brand-new Cadillac from the stage or sport blue-suede shoes. His nightclub performances were done in deference to the the King, not in imitation.

But that’s the joy of landing a second season, Lee said, which has given the creative team a chance to refine the character and, by extension, the show. “It’s looser and lighter, more fun and adventurous,” Lee said. “It feels more raw at the same time, with more action overall. There will be more shootouts, more real stuff happening.”

Hendricks will be more likely to get into a car chase with the bad guys, in other words, but just as prone to passing out with a Budweiser in his hand and his vintage muscle car in the driveway.

Lee, whose varied résumé includes Kevin Smith-directed indie films, the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” franchise and NBC’s “My Name Is Earl,” said he and the showrunners talked about classic series he loved as a kid. They found plenty of inspiration in shows such as “The Rockford Files,” “CHiPs” and “The Streets of San Francisco” to hone what Lee calls the “old-school, retro” vibe of “Memphis Beat.”

The country- and R&B-driven soundtrack will remain -- lots of B.B. King, Johnny Cash and Otis Redding -- as will Hendricks’ break-the-rules rebellious streak. His by-the-book boss, played by Alfre Woodard, will continue to lord it over him, and the city, as much a star as any other character, will still be filled to bursting with oddballs and eccentrics. Critics have called the series charming and soulful, and Lee promises that those qualities won’t be lost in the realignment.

“We made Hendricks too much of a martyr last season, and we learned from that,” Lee said. “He had the weight of the entire city on his shoulders. There’s a greater balance this season, which makes it more believable. Dwight even smiles more.”


The show pulled in 4.7-million viewers on average during the first season (4.3 million viewers for the premiere episode) and landed in basic cable’s top 10 new series for summer 2010 (and in basic cable’s top 20 original series for the year).

Curveballs coming for Season 2 include an internal affairs investigator, played by Beau Garrett (“Tron: Legacy”) who happens to be an attractive young woman/potential love interest for Hendricks, and a prison release that brings up memories of the detective’s dad, a beat cop who was killed on duty.

Lee, who’s an avid photographer and skateboarder, doesn’t count singing among his multiple talents. He honed his lip-syncing in Season 1, but may do less of it this time around. There won’t necessarily be a club performance in every episode, he said.

“If Dwight is always suiting up and doing an Elvis song, the other stuff just doesn’t have as much weight.”


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-- T.L. Stanley