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I've caught the ‘Memphis Beat’

This summer, my husband and I got hooked on another southern police drama, TNT's Memphis Beat. So far, the series is taking a rather honest but less jaded view of justice and the law than some other contributions to the genre. It toys with hard questions, but the men and women in this squad, for the most part, run a good ship. The series stars Jason Lee (in a role dramatically different than his lead in My Name is Earl) as Memphis Police Detective Dwight Hendricks and rounds out the squad with his slightly swarmy partner Charlie “Whitehead” White (Sam Hennings), geeky police officer Davy Sutton (DJ Qualls), family strapped Reginald Greenback (Leonard Earl Howze), big hearted Sgt. JC Lightfoot (Abraham Benrubi), and their boss, a sharp and savvy Lt. Tanya Rice (Alfre Woodard).

Memphis Beat is carving its own niche in the genre, and one of the ways it’s doing that is through its use of music to frame each episode and the story in general—hence the “beat” in the title. Dwight knows his blues, jazz and gospel and in his off duty hours sings (quite fabulously, I must add) on stage. The songs and music are, for the most part, craftily chosen, often adding texture and depth to the stories in each episode as well as Dwight’s own personal journey.

And Dwight’s journey brings out some interesting God-talk. In “Run On” (which takes its title from an old spiritual/gospel of the same) that God-talk moves to front the burner, where we discover that at least one aspect of Dwight’s journey has to do with wrestling with who God is and what that means and how that plays out in his life. During an investigation into a shooting, Dwight shares with a pastor how he grew up going to church with his mother and that singing in the church choir was the only way he got through it—and why he decided to stop going when he got old enough to make his own choice. When the pastor asks him why he quit going to church, Dwight responds:
Dwight: Well, my daddy was a week away from steppin’ down and he got killed in the line of duty. I asked God why, but he never answered. I still don’t know if it was his idea, or it’s the world we live in, or something Daddy brought on himself, what to make of it.

Pastor: The scars of our youth, they never go away. And what do we do about it? That is the work.
What I appreciate about this episode (which deserves a full post of its own) is that it doesn’t wrap up all that with a neat bow. Working out the healing of our past wounds and spiritual struggles are indeed a great portion of the “work” of our lives, and Dwight is no exception. And while his struggle with God isn’t resolved, he does make some progress: At the end of the episode, he’s back in church, throwing his whole soul into singing that old gospel song with the church choir.

Another aspect I like about the series is that Dwight isn’t on his journey by himself—in fact, he’s not even trying to go it alone. He and his colleagues constantly confront each other on their shortcomings even as they come along side each other in crisis. Honesty with and compassion for each other play big roles in the choices these characters make. In fact, we watch those who try to go it alone start to slide down slippery slopes. It isn’t easy for them, however. In a recent episode, Dwight struggled with a difficult case and faced a dilemma about whether or not to turn in an otherwise upstanding teenage boy who tried to shoot and kill the man who killed his young sister. After a frank and honest conversation with Rice—who confesses her own sympathy with his temptation to look the other way—Dwight chooses the right but hardest thing, something he might not have done had he tried to go that one on his own. In the end, taking justice into your own hands is a slippery slope—and Dwight’s choice to help the boy off that slope ended up keeping him off it as well.

And all of that resonates with me because it echoes our own journeys. We can’t go it alone—we were never designed to. We were created to walk with and live together, looking out for each other’s best interests above our own. That involves paying attention and coming along side each other in good times and bad. I appreciate a story that values and illustrates that.

The series already completed its first 10-episode season, but you can catch all the episodes here. Entertainment Weekly reports TNT has given the series a second season, and that makes me glad. I like Dwight—and the God-talk he brings into these open spaces.

(Images: TNT)


Beth said…
Unfortunately, I lost interest before this episode, which does sound worthwhile. On the whole, maybe this series is more worth following than one or two others I've pursued this summer. One good thing about basic cable channels, though--they usually supply plenty of re-runs!
Carmen Andres said…
those first few episodes were a bit uneven, i think. it definately tightened up as it went on, imho.