A Few TV Thoughts

Lessons from Old TV: Memphis Beat

Lesson #4: Production

Television as a writing medium intrigues me. I love the potential to delve into a character’s life and explore in detail different themes and situations on an episode by episode basis. In order to teach myself about writing for television I completed a project during the 2011-2012 television season to further those efforts. I tried all of the pilots of any show that I could possibly be interested in. Let me tell you, it was a lot of television. There were eight of these shows that made my cut but didn’t score with the networks. In this series I’ll explore why I felt they had potential yet explain the pitfall that caused the show to stumble and die.

Memphis Beat - Header

When Memphis Beat came out I felt like another cop drama was too much. After watching the pilot – wow! The city of Memphis almost became a character itself with detailed visuals and Dwight, the protagonist fit the city perfectly. In fact, Dwight himself was well characterized, again through the details.

Memphis Beat - Celica WestonHis sense of justice made his looking out for people part of his character rather than something added for audience expectations. His Elvis love and impersonation hobby added a bit of quirk that Jason Lee carries off to perfection. The song he sang each episode a bit of heart laid to music (better when he actually sang them himself rather than when the producers brought someone else in). His Mama and the conflict between who he thought his Daddy was and the evidence saying otherwise brought depth. His partner, Whitehouse, was a perfect foil for the character with his sarcastic pessimism. His Lieutenant was a great contrast to his own methods. Even the little secondary characters in the precinct added to the character of Dwight and Memphis.

Memphis Beat - Cast

The first few cases were well-written, maybe nothing mind-blowing but tweaked for their run in Memphis and with Dwight. It got weird when they hurriedly tied up the story-line about Dwight’s Daddy being dirty. It was a very puzzling death keel when so much of the show was good.

The thing that would have made the show even better would have been to develop an intriguing Memphis character every episode and tease the audience about whether they are just a suspect or the true villain of the episode. In this way make Memphis Beat about Memphis and the south while the vehicle is the cop drama. Sometimes after the producers run through the scripts already written is when a show dies. They lack the passion and drive to do the research needed to carry the show to success. With a little knowledge of Memphis, the city and a gem of a show would have broken free from the police procedural. Good ideas, the right mix of details and passionate actors aren’t enough if the rudder of a show lacks the same.

TNT cancelled Memphis Beat due to lack of leadership. 

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