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TELEVISION REVIEW

Standard police procedure on ‘Memphis Beat’

Jason Lee (left) plays a detective who performs in clubs looking like Elvis, Alfre Woodard (right) is his by-the-book boss, and DJ Qualls (below) is a junior cop. Jason Lee (left) plays a detective who performs in clubs looking like Elvis, Alfre Woodard (right) is his by-the-book boss, and DJ Qualls (below) is a junior cop.
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / June 22, 2010

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Sometimes, saying that a TV show is dogged by cliches is a cliche. So forgive me in advance. But “Memphis Beat,’’ TNT’s latest original cop drama, is dogged by cliches.

There’s nothing atrocious about the series, which premieres tonight at 10. The elements that are being dogged by cliches are likable enough, particularly the cast. The scruffy Jason Lee from “My Name Is Earl’’ plays Dwight, a detective who performs at a local Memphis club looking like Elvis Presley. Alfre Woodard is the new by-the-book boss with whom he locks horns. Woodard, whose recent TV resume is marred by disappointing turns on “Desperate Housewives’’ and the egregious trio of “My Own Worst Enemy,’’ “Inconceivable,’’ and “Three Rivers,’’ is pleasingly at ease as Tanya, the surrogate mom to a station house of cops.

And then there’s DJ Qualls, a favorite of mine over the years for his memorable TV guest roles on everything from “Criminal Minds’’ to “Lost,’’ where he was one of Hurley’s old buddies. Qualls is rail thin, and he has a ferret-like face that enables him to play comic or creepy, both of which he does effectively. On “Memphis Beat,’’ he’s comic, a junior cop and Dwight wannabe who can’t get anything right in a sweet kind of way.

But we’ve seen all their police-station dynamics and half-baked cases-of-the-week many, many times before; and show creators Liz W. Garcia of “Cold Case’’ and Joshua Harto don’t bring any kind of fresh twist to them here. Dwight has a do-or-die devotion to his investigations, which leads him to bend the rules. Tanya keeps taking him off the case because he’s too close to it. He keeps ignoring her and finally solves the crime, at which point the captured bad guy scornfully explains his motivations to Dwight for our sake.

The Memphis location is meant to add distinction, but it doesn’t quite work. The setting and the musical references seem oddly artificial, right down to Lee’s stage performance, for which his voice has been dubbed. You feel as though you’re getting a tourist’s-eye-view of the city. Fully realized location series such as “Justified’’ and “Treme’’ make you feel as though you can smell the Southern air. “Memphis Beat’’ doesn’t have that kind of authenticity. It’s just too — yeah, I’ll say it again — dogged by cliches.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

MEMPHIS BEAT Starring: Jason Lee, Alfre Woodard, DJ Qualls, Sam Hennings, Abraham Benrubi

On: TNT

Time: Tonight, 10-11