Last we saw Jason Lee, he and his signature 70s’-era ’stache ended the fourth season of “My Name is Earl” last year with “To be continued” embossed on the screen.
Instead, NBC canceled the sitcom, which saw its ratings drop off sharply in the 2008-09 season. Other networks (including TBS and TNT) considered keeping it alive, but the creators couldn’t justify the budget cuts they were being asked to make.
“I was surprised to have it canceled like that,” said Lee in a phone interview earlier this month.”We still have our fans.”
Lee quickly jumped back into scripted TV, this time opting for a cop drama called “Memphis Beat” debuting tonight on TBS at 10 p.m.
“I certainly would not have been interested in a typical formulaic cop drama,” he said. “I wouldn’t do a CSI show. No offense. That’s just not really my bag. This is more character driven. It’s every much about the people involved and the relationships and the humanity. You’re as invested in these characters than whatever case we may explore each week.”
In the first episode, he veers from sweet and lighthearted to his mama and other people he cares about to tough and menacing (or at least as tough and menacing as Jason Lee can muster) with perps. His independent ways don’t vibe with the new by-the-books boss played by Alfre Woodard. Cliched? Yes.
But at night, he vibes with Elvis Presley, covering his songs. And the show drips with respect for the city of Memphis. “It’s a love letter to all those people in the South and its music,” said Lee, a California boy who has played two Southern boys back to back.
He spent time listening to Memphis natives, listening to Elvis speak. His detective character Dwight “respects his elders and respects where he came from. He’s not doing his job to collect a paycheck. He wants to serve and protect as a well-mannered person. He’s really trying to clean up Memphis.”
Due to tax incentives, New Orleans masquerades as Memphis (though they do shoot some exteriors in Memphis.). “There’s definitely enough Memphis in there to know it’s Memphis,” he said.
The toughest part of the role? The humidity and heat. “I drink a lot of water, a lot of Gatorade,” Lee said. “There’s a lot of sweating going on.”
The singing voice you’ll hear on the show is not Lee. He tried but the producers said he wasn’t quite good enough so they hired Mark Arnell to sing in his place. “He was absolutely the right fit,” Lee said. “I gave it my best. I went into a studio and laid down a couple of tracks but it wasn’t quite there.”
Lee’s favorite Elvis song: “If I Can Dream.” “It was very powerful when he did that 1968 comeback special, when he reclaimed his place. It also sums up Dwight.”
He also enjoyed working with Woodard, whose boss character comes off a bit rigid in the first episode but softens up by the end.”She’s not just yelling at me every episode,” he said. “We try to make it more relatable. They both have layers. She has her vulnerabilities, too. They’ll ultimately build respect for each other.”
What would Dwight think of Earl Hickey, the karma-obsessed goofball from “My Name is Earl.” “Dwight would laugh at him. He might admire his mustache. Earl is more ignorant, more naive but in the end was trying to do good things as well.”
Lee had mixed feelings about that infamous mustache. “It was fun for what it was,” he said. “I’m really glad I decided to do it. It really fit the character. It was a way to be immersed in that world and have a completely different look.” But he did admit: “After awhile, the novelty did wear off.”
“Memphis Beat” 10 p.m. on Tuesdays on TNT