Jason Lee and Chris Jericho
The good news about this year's bumper crop of new summer TV: There's plenty of it. (I spent much of the last few days wading through a mid-July burst of new crime-drama premieres.) The bad news: There's too much of it, and too little of it — at least from what I've seen so far — is any good. (I'm talking about the brand new stuff here, which keeps on coming whether we particularly want it to or not.) At this point, I'm beginning to pine for good old repeats.
Tuesday night provided two particularly painful examples: TNT's dreary Memphis Beat crime drama and ABC's insipid Downfall game show.
Memphis is particularly disappointing, given our residual affection for My Name Is Earl's Jason Lee, who it turns out is hamstrung when only half a character is written for him. That character would be Dwight Hendricks, an all-too-familiar sort of maverick detective who is regarded with awe by all who know him — except for his snippy new boss, played by the similarly overqualified Alfre Woodard with the same tone of haughty boredom she employed on Three Rivers last season. Can't say I blame her. While she was sleepwalking, I felt I was sleep-watching.
Memphis Beat professes all kinds of love for this fabled Tennessee city and its tradition of great music and food, although the show itself is filmed in New Orleans. Which is especially ironic as it arrives in the wake of Treme, HBO's lovingly detailed post-Katrina drama whose primary attribute was its authenticity and sense of place. Still, even a faked locale can come alive if the writing and direction are up to snuff. (Case in point: FX's flavorful Kentucky-fried Justified, which runs circles around Memphis Beat when it comes to delivering vivid characters, developing sharp and unpredictable storylines and maintaining a firm grasp on regional color.)
In this watered-down Memphis, it's hard not to feel force-fed by sanctimonious cliché. Dwight proselytizes endlessly about his love for the city, for Elvis (by night, he sings tributes to his idol—lip-synced, naturally — in front of an appreciative audience), and for his momma (an underutilized Celia Weston). Dwight may be a good old boy, but this is an instantly tired old show. I'll force myself to watch another episode, but I'd rather just go to Memphis — or, for that matter, "Memphis" the Tony-winning musical, which is no great shakes itself but at least didn't put me in a stupor.
Expectations weren't nearly as high for Downfall, an overproduced and yet underpowered attempt to wed a classic quiz show to the classic Letterman gimmick of throwing objects off a building so we can see them splat. Fond memories of exploding watermelons are echoed when replicas of a popcorn machine, a year's supply of coffee and a car go over the side of a 100-foot skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles and go boom. (They meet their fate by sliding off a conveyor belt, a prop that ABC's reality division clearly has a fetish for.) But mostly, and sadly, Downfall just crashes and burns, despite the efforts of a screaming audience that cheers on amped-up contestants, who are rigged with harnesses that will allow them to bungee off the stage when they reach the end of their game. Chris Jericho is the toothsome host, but even he seems to be feigning enthusiasm for a spectacle several notches down the Fear Factor scale of thrill-seeking.
The one novel twist comes when the flustered contestant hits a panic button to earn a do-over, which means putting either a prized possession—in one case, a Boston firefighter's golf clubs—or a "panic partner" pal on the conveyer belt to be sent over the edge if the required number of correct answers aren't given. Tuesday's premiere episode ended before the firefighter could put his buddy to the test, said buddy's name being "Eric Estada" (not a typo).
Gotta love that. But Downfall, not so much.
Folks, it's going to be a long (if busy) summer.
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