By Ken Tucker
Updated June 22, 2010 at 12:00 PM EDT

Memphis Beat sidled its way onto TV looking, at first, as though it was just another cop show. Worse, a cop show with a “break-the-rules” rebel facing a “by the book” boss. Worse still, another cop show with an Elvis impersonator sight-gag.

But pretty soon, the charm of Jason Lee as Memphis Police detective Dwight Hendricks began to insinuate itself into the hour. Lee’s Dwight is a polite, humble man with a shrewd toughness — much like his hero, Elvis Presley, was in his prime. (And no, while Dwight may croon Elvis songs on this show, he was not an impersonator — the white-jumpsuited imposters were relegated to a few brief seconds.) As for his new boss, Lt. Tanya Rice, she was played by Alfre Woodard with a warmth and prickly humor that quickly transcended the usual stiff-grump role this kind of character usually offers in this genre.

Memphis Beat, created by Liz. W. Harto (Cold Case) and Joshua Harto (The Dark Knight) with George Clooney as one of the producers, is steeped in Memphis soul — even if it was filmed in New Orleans. The night’s main plot turned on the case of an abused old woman who turned out to be a legendary Memphis disc jockey. Dwight grew up listening to her, and spoke intensely of hearing Presley and sensing that “he was saying everything I was feeling just in the sound of his voice.” Any show that appreciates the wisdom that is imparted in the sound of a voice, and not necessarily the words that are being sung, is a show with its own soulfulness.

By the end, Lee and Woodard were playing off each other as though they’d been doing Memphis Beat for many months. And while the crime-solving was conducted in the hard-boiled manner in which all such cable shows must, there was an easy flow to the rhythm of the storytelling that made Memphis Beat stand out from the pack of TNT and USA crime shows. Not sure how well DJ Qualls, playing a kind of bumbling Barney Fife to Dwight’s Andy Griffith, is going to develop, though.

Anyway, I was charmed. And I made it through the entire show without thinking of My Name Is Earl. How about you?