Fans of Jason Lee, the city of Memphis and old-school cop shows rejoice -- Memphis Beat is nearly here. The My Name is Earl star has taken on the new role of Detective Dwight Hendricks, a Memphis cop with a deep appreciation for the city and its musical heritage. How deep? He also performs on stage at night, crooning Elvis tunes. But this isn't Cop Rock -- this is a new crime drama on TNT, with a light-and-dark mix of gritty real crime and quirky character exploration. To find out more about the show's origins and destination, we talked to the creators and head writers, Liz Garcia and Joshua Harto, who also happen to be married.
TWoP: So where did the idea for the show come from?
Joshua Harto: We were interested in making a throwback cop show, for lack of a better term. When we were selling the show, we pitched it as the anti-CSI cop show.
Liz Garcia: Meaning low-tech. Meaning not a bunch of beautiful people -- not that our people aren't beautiful -- standing in an unrealistic-looking set, relying on high-priced technology to solve crimes. We wanted to write about real characters and real police work. We're interested in the humorous side of these guys, as well as the dramatic side.
Harto: That was what came first, and then we were putting our heads together thinking of where we could set it, because the couple scripts that we'd written, the setting is very important, and always a character in the show. I'm from the South and my family is spread out all over the South. My grandfather is a country musician, and I spent a lot of time with him growing up, and he introduced me to all of this great music that had come from Memphis. And I fell in love with it as a kid, and so we just asked ourselves, "What would happen if we set the show in Memphis?" And everything was sort of born form that idea.
Garcia: We love writing about the South, too. It' such a rich, specific culture, the language is really specific, too, and that's the kind of writing that we like. Nothing generic.
Harto: The character, and the tone and the soul of the show kinda all came from the idea that this would be a show about people in Memphis.
Garcia: And that goes back to what I was saying about us being interested in humor and drama, because Memphis is really quirky. There's just something funny about the city, and the people who live there -- they are eccentric, but there's also a tragic element about Memphis, because in some senses it's a city abandoned by time, a little bit. Also, it was the site of the great tragedy of Martin Luther King's assassination, and there are areas of great poverty. So the two sides of the coin, that's what we wanted the show to capture.
So did you have to spend a lot of time in Memphis to get a true feel for the city?
Harto: We did go there, yeah. Many times.
Garcia: There's a lot of eating.
Harto: The development process for this show lasted something like two and a half years, or some other absurd amount of time, and we sold three or four other pilots in the time we were developing the show. So we took plenty of opportunities to go to Memphis and stuff our faces. So we got to know the location very well.
Garcia: We'd talk to people, drive around, just so that we could then, beyond the pilot, continue to make the locations actual locations. Wherever we can, it's a real restaurant we're talking about, it's a real intersection.
Harto: We've become very fond of the place. It's a remarkable city.
Garcia: It deserves its own television show.
Is Jason Lee pretty close to how you envisioned the character?
Garcia: Jason brings more charm and, I would say, leading man good looks than we expected. The character on the page was maybe more brooding, but I think that, the idea of this character with this rich, interior life and a kind of dark, sensitive side is what drew Jason to it. And Jason himself certainly has that, but he just brings so much charm and humor that I guess we hadn't lifted our expectations so high as to expect to find that in someone.
Things get pretty serious in the first episode, with Hendricks getting far too involved with an elderly abused woman. Would you say the episode's mix of comedy and drama is standard for the show, or was this a particularly heavy one?
Garcia: I would say that's probably representative. There are episodes that have a bit more humor , but the balance is really what we wanted. We wanted you to laugh when the perp's pants fall down and then, ten minutes later, be into this elderly abuse case. I mean, that's a satisfying viewing experience for us, being able to laugh and cry, and that's what we're going for.
The show has an impressive supporting cast. Will we get to spend more time with Abraham Benrubi's and DJ Qualls' characters in future episodes?
Harto: Oh, yes.
Garcia: That was a big deal for us, developing the show and getting these actors was saying, "Look, you're never going to be doing the same thing every week. You're not going to be interchangeable with the other supporting cast." So, for instance, in our third episode, we really go into DJ Qualls' character, Davey Sutton's life when he goes undercover in a sting operation. It's really his episode. And then Leonard Earl Howze, who plays Detective Greenback, he has his own episode, we get into Abraham Benrubi's character J.C. Lightfoot, we get into his Native American heritage and his relationship with his wife. And of course, we get more about Alfre Woodard, who plays Lt. Tanya Rice.
Harto: We really like to think of the show as a 60-40 balance of character to procedure, so that's what we're really working on moving forward. The procedural elements we think of as a vehicle for the characters, so every episode is filled to the brim with character development and exploration.
What are the pros and cons of being a husband-and-wife writing team?
Garcia: That's a rich question.
Harto: There's only pros! [Laughs.] That's not true.
Garcia: A pro is that when you're talking about work, the other person actually cares.
Harto: This is a difficult job, with a lot of stress, and a lot of people getting very distressed and angry at you all day long, and it's really nice to have someone that loves and trusts you to hold your hand through the process.
Garcia: This is an isolating job for the two of us, so I can't imagine how it is for someone doing this by themselves, or doing this with a partner they can't just kiss if they're feeling bummed out.
Harto: It has its difficult days, as well.
Garcia: Yeah, you can't just hate the other person.
Memphis Beat premieres Tuesday, June 22, at 10/9C on TNT. Check it out, then see what other new shows kick off this summer.
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