Married TV writers Liz Garcia and Josh Harto found themselves with some time off during the writers' strike of 2007-08, so they decided to hit the road. They drove cross-country, including through Memphis, where Harto used to take trips with his country musician grandfather. They fell in love with the city, and the idea for a TV show was born. Memphis Beat, starring Jason Lee as loveable, Elvis-obsessed Detective Dwight Hendricks, debuted on June 22 and focuses on its characters as much as the crime of the week. Garcia talked to TVGuide.com about the show's origins and what's to come this season.
TVGuide.com: How did you and Josh come up with the idea for Memphis Beat?
Liz Garcia: It started with the idea of doing a throwback cop show. ... Something that was really about cops as characters and that felt more realistic in terms of how they get their job done than a show that heavily features very expensive, cutting edge technology. The next step for us is always, 'Where are we going to set it? 'That's really where we get our inspiration. My husband... had this child's memory of Memphis as this exciting, gritty place with these neon lights and great food and music pouring out of every bar and restaurant. It's not far from the truth!
During the writers' strike of '07 we drove across the country, stopped [in Memphis] for several days and really, really fell in love with it. We like to listen to the music of the place as we're writing. We started getting this image of this city with two faces: on the one side there's crime to grapple with and then on the other hand it's this really eccentric place. The food is amazing, people love to have a great time, the music is incredible. That's where the tone of the show came through. [It's] funny and dramatic like the city.
TVGuide.com: What did you learn about Elvis in Memphis?
Garcia: We met Jerry Schilling, who was one of Elvis' best friends. He's a really amazing guy. He took us on a tour of Graceland. ... It was very powerful and amazing to hear the specific memories of the fun times they had, the inside scoop on how funny Elvis was. [It] deepened our sense of responsibility. Having that personal connection to Elvis through Jerry made us feel we have to do justice to his legacy and the city.
TVGuide.com: Did any of that shape Dwight's character?
Garcia: It affirmed [it]. What Jason Lee brings to the table in terms of how he shapes Dwight is very much in line with who Elvis was. Jason is really funny and a leader of men, and he has a great sense of whimsy, But he also is a deep thinker. Elvis was a deep thinker — he loved to read and discuss religion and philosophy and stay up to all hours with his friends chewing over everything. That introspective side and intensity was always a part of Dwight, but Jason definitely amplifies that.
TVGuide.com: You have an amazing amount of guest stars. Any scoop on who's coming up or someone you'd die to have?
Garcia: Oh, there are so many I'd die to have, but I can tell you that if we come back for a second season, Mos Def is going to be on the show. He's friends with Celia Weston [who plays Paula Ann] and has expressed interested in being on the show, as has BB King. It would be an unbelievable privilege to work with them, as it was [to work] with Giovanni Ribisi and Juliette Lewis. There's a brilliant character actor, Pruitt Taylor Vince. He's in our last episode and ... we have a bunch of really brilliant local actors.
TVGuide.com: Is Jason Lee doing his own singing?
Garcia: He's not. He decided he wanted Dwight to have a super amazing professional voice. and he didn't feel he could deliver that. He's a good singer, by the way, but we wanted to use a voice that felt like if Dwight hadn't been a cop, he could've been a professional singer. So, we have a brilliant guy, Mark Arnell, who does Dwight's singing voice.
TVGuide.com: We know Dwight is a big Mr. Fix It. Are we going to see him struggle with that?
Garcia: Dwight can't help it [Laughs]. He's just wired to want to make everything better for everybody else, and we have so much fun playing with how Lt. Rice is the same way. That's what drives them insane about each other! In the season finale, he comes across an unsolved case that's always plagued him. We'll watch him be challenged professionally and emotionally trying to close this case. And we'll also see in the last two episodes what it's like for Dwight when his mother's life changes radically.
TVGuide.com: Have we gotten any hints about this unsolved case in past episodes?
Garcia: It'll be something that unfolds in this episode but you'll realize in retrospect ... why Dwight is so intense about all of his other cases [and] why he's so always determined to get the job done.
TVGuide.com: We've seen a lot of shows shifting out of the typical New York/Los Angeles backdrops. Do you think there's a reason for that?
Garcia: Maybe just because it's been played out. You can't do New York any better than Law & Order and NYPD Blue did it. Or maybe there's a sense post-election that the real heart of our country is not represented on TV. That was big deal for me and Josh to drive across the country during the election and feel like part of a larger population and community and that Hollywood had gotten away from.
TVGuide.com: Since the show is set in Memphis, why shoot in New Orleans?
Garcia: Louisiana offers a 33 percent tax refund to film and TV productions. There were a number of possibilities but we felt that New Orleans was closest to Memphis. It's a really friendly, easy place to shoot ... and close enough for B-unit stuff in Memphis. ... I know people are very intense about how we're depicting Memphis and people are really upset that we don't shoot all of our principle photography in Memphis. I want people to know that we would if we could.
Memphis Beat airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on TNT.