Jason Lee looks to more authentic 'Memphis Beat'

Jun 12 2011 - 9:24am

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SKIP BOLEN/TNT
Jason Lee stars as Dwight Hendricks, a police detective who moonlights as a rock and blues singer, on “Memphis Beat.”
SKIP BOLEN/TNT
Jason Lee stars as Dwight Hendricks, a police detective who moonlights as a rock and blues singer, on “Memphis Beat.”

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The police mystery series "Memphis Beat" -- which returns at 7 p.m. Tuesday for a second season on TNT -- is set in the home of blues and barbecue and shot primarily in LaPlace, La., a zydeco and Cajun music center that is the self-described "Andouille Capital of the World," in recognition of a popular spicy sausage.

Protagonist Dwight Hendricks, played by Jason Lee, is a police detective. He also moonlights as a rock and soul singer, crooning Elvis tunes and Memphis classics.

The term "identity crisis" comes to mind. This season, however, "Memphis Beat" hopes to resolve its aesthetic schizophrenia by making Hendricks a more believable police officer -- and human being -- and by being truer to the title city that is its inspiration, even if Louisiana's tax incentives and other economic realities prevent the program from being shot in Memphis.

The show underwent what Lee calls "a huge retooling" in the offseason, and has returned with a new creative team, including new producers and writers.

"I wasn't the biggest fan of the first season," a surprisingly candid Lee, 41, admitted while eating a breakfast of ham and eggs and sliced tomatoes, the morning after serving as an onstage presenter at the recent Blues Music Awards in Memphis.

"I just didn't think it worked as well as I thought it would," said Lee, a professional skateboarder-turned-actor who was introduced in such independent films as "Chasing Amy" before finding popular recognition in the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" movies and the TV series "My Name Is Earl," which ran for four seasons on NBC. "It was almost like a season-long pilot, and we were working it out as we went along."

Lee said the presentation of Hendricks in the first season was "too precious" in its Elvis Presley references, yet "too heavy": TNT publicity at the time described Hendricks as "the keeper of Memphis."

Hendricks, Lee said, "should be less of a martyr, carrying the weight of the city on his shoulders, and more well-rounded, laid-back -- a little bit more human. More of a dude, less of a precious Elvis thing."

Season Two of "Memphis Beat" immediately tries to lay to rest some misconceptions about the character. In the first episode, an Internal Affairs officer (Beau Garrett) new to Memphis says: "I heard you were an Elvis impersonator." Responds Hendricks: "I just admire the man. I play lots of people's songs." (In Season Two as in Season One, Lee's singing voice is dubbed.)

Each of the 10 first-season episodes was named for a Presley song: "Baby, Let's Play House," "Suspicious Minds" and so on. The new season drops that conceit.

Even Hendricks' wardrobe has received a makeover: This season, the slimmed-down, 6-foot-1 Lee will dress in lighter clothes, and eschew the black jackets that gave off a "'68 Comeback Special" vibe.

Season Two will contain at least one truly authentic Presley connection, however. Red West, who was a longtime member of Presley's "Memphis Mafia," appears in a particularly dramatic episode as the cancer-stricken drug addict who killed Hendricks' father. "I have a great, long scene where I try to explain to him how sorry I am," West said.

Despite the Memphis montages that serve as transitions between scenes (Season Two episodes include shots of Beale Street, The Pyramid Arena and Mississippi River bridges), some Bluff City viewers objected to the program's sometimes-obvious Louisiana locations. This didn't bother general audiences. "Memphis Beat" was a hit, garnering some 4 million viewers per episode -- making it one of basic cable's more popular original programs after its June 22 debut last summer.

"I thought it was fabulous last year, and our millions of fans thought so as well," said actress Alfre Woodard, who plays Hendricks' boss, Lt. Tanya Rice. (The cast also includes Sam Hennings as a fellow detective and Nashville, Tenn., native and "Hustle & Flow" star DJ Qualls as a comical police officer.)

Lee said people connected with the program wish they could shoot in Memphis, to make it more authentic.

"We would like to shoot here, absolutely," he said. "If you were in Memphis, everywhere you go, anything that's in the camera is usable."

As it is, new production designer Lauren Crasco is making a conscientious effort "to weed out anything that says 'New Orleans,'aaaa" Lee said, because during the first season, "we certainly heard from quite a few (Memphians) that the show didn't feel like Memphis."

Said Lee: "People in Memphis are watching a show that's got the name of their city in the title, and I'm sensitive to that. We're trying to not disrespect Memphis as much as we can."

Still, the show's producers sometimes dispense with verisimilitude for dramatic effect. In the new season's first episode, Hendricks attends the funeral of a murdered police officer, and provides an a cappella version of that most quintessential of New Orleans anthems, "When the Saints Go Marching In."

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