Graceland debuts tonight on USA at 10 p.m. Eastern with a 73-minute pilot.
In recent years, USA’s slate of dramas has gotten if not exactly daring at least mildly adventurous. The network that set out to fill the action-adventure procedural slot that the networks mostly abandoned in the ‘90s succeeded beyond its wildest dreams with shows like Burn Notice, and now, it’s moving beyond that show’s format of mission of the week, paired with a serialized story that inches along at the end of every episode, one that was fresh when Burn Notice began but feels increasingly long in the tooth with every episode (100 of them as of next week). The network has always been better at this sort of thing than the broadcast networks (who have tried to beat USA at its own game and mostly failed, even lofty CBS), but now, it’s taking chances on riskier material and more complicated storytelling. Nobody’s going to mistake any of these shows for Breaking Bad, but USA has always excelled at providing eye candy with just enough story substance to keep viewers watching. That it’s upping the level of substance—even if only slightly—is a welcome sign.
Sure, the network strikes out fairly often. Necessary Roughness has never found a way to be anything but an uneasy trifle, uncertain of how hard it wants to hit, while Fairly Legal was a bit of a dud (despite the best efforts of the ever-charming Sarah Shahi). Yet in the last year or so, USA’s other offerings have taken off. Covert Affairs turned from a fairly bland spy show into a surprisingly compelling series with more serialization than USA is known for, while Suits became a crackerjack legal thriller that seemed at times like John Grisham and Aaron Sorkin had a baby. (This is higher praise than it sounds like.) And always, the network has had White Collar, the kind of easygoing good-time series that offers up a steady dosage of beautiful scenery, fun capers, and fantastic chemistry between its leads on a weekly basis.
It’s no accident, then, that that show’s creator, Jeff Eastin, has brought the network another winner in its newest drama, Graceland. The show has its problems, but it’s also got two terrific performances at its center, a premise that finds some new edges on the standard cop drama, and an occasional sense of California noir (at least when it can get out of its own way). It also might be the most serialized show that USA has ever had at this early date, with every episode adding up to some fairly major storylines. Now, since this is USA, every episode has some sort of minor goal that must be achieved within those major storylines, preserving the case of the week structure, but it really does feel like the show is going somewhere. It’s a long way from Michael Westen’s mom asking him to help out of one her friends while the master plot quietly spins its wheels.
At first, Graceland seems like a standard cop show with a twist that feels weirdly inspired by a reality show. Based on a real mansion in Southern California, the series’ titular locale is a beach house occupied by agents for the FBI, DEA, and U.S. department of customs, all of whom use the house as their primary base of operations while going out on undercover missions in the area, mostly to bring down big time heroin dealers. And, indeed, tonight’s pilot takes quite some time to get going. (USA is enamored of its hourlong pilots, but they too often just feel padded out to be padded out.) But by roughly the pilot’s midpoint, the story becomes engagingly twisty, the characters start to lock in, and Eastin’s skill with just-hangin’-out dialogue becomes more and more apparent. By the end, Eastin’s set several intriguing story engines in motion, all without seeming to break much of a sweat. It’s impressive.
None of it would work without the show’s two central stars. As Mike, a just-out-of-the-academy FBI agent who was stunned to end up assigned to Graceland after performing so well on the bureau’s tests, Aaron Tveit makes a fascinating center for the show. Where White Collar’s Matt Bomer is all flash and charm and dazzle, there’s an element of desperate faking it to Tveit’s performance that makes Mike land as a character. (It’s telling that his weakest scenes involve a romance that builds in later episodes, when he’s supposed to be effortlessly charming and mostly comes off as kind of dull.) Mike might have book smarts, and he might have learned everything the academy could teach him, but he’s also in just slightly over his head, despite being a gifted improviser. The show and Tveit are at their best when Mike is in a situation where everything could go south and he has to bullshit his way out, and Eastin and his writers are only too happy to provide said situations with frequency.
Tveit’s also got somebody great to bounce off of in Daniel Sunjata, as Graceland’s papa bear, Agent Paul Briggs. Sunjata’s always had a quietly soulful presence, and Eastin finds ways to at once play that up and undercut it throughout the three episodes sent to critics. Always a side player on Rescue Me, Sunjata proves a hugely capable leading man here, playing almost every mode of the show—even yet another somewhat forced romantic entanglement—engagingly and persuasively. Briggs seems emotionally open and ready to be there for any of the others living at Graceland, but he’s also loathe to give up anything about himself. It’s a dynamic that could feel played out, given that it pops up on every cop show ever, but Sunjata makes it all work. He even makes it believable when other characters punch him and he somehow goes down.
Like White Collar, Graceland also gets a great amount of mileage from its look. The series is playing with the visual toolkit of California neo-noir, with dark streets suffused only with the light from streetlamps and quiet meetings beneath freeway interchanges, and it actually writes a check the series has yet to cash. At least in the first three episodes, Graceland is much better at suggesting the kind of grim choices and dire consequences that are noir’s stock-in-trade than it is at realizing them. There’s rarely a fear that, say, Mike will lose his head because he’s in too deep or the like. But the show’s shadowy look and its handy ability with rat-a-tat dialogue gives it the feel of noir, and that’s a marked contrast to USA’s other, brighter shows. The series frequently cuts between scenes with bleared-out shots of California in too-bright daylight, and it always feels like coming out of a long coma to discover the world has kept turning.
The writing isn’t to that level yet, but it’s several steps up from serviceable (as the writing too often was in the early days of White Collar). As mentioned, the dialogue can be incredibly cliché—Mike rattles off every bit of overcooked cop show dialogue there is at some point in these three episodes—but there are also scenes of the characters just hanging out that are fun to watch. Eastin excels at building believable friendships between work colleagues, at stories where a bunch of people who just happen to work together realize they really like shooting the shit, and when his dialogue isn’t straining to advance the plot, it has a pleasant, lived-in quality. The storytelling is also structured quite well, with every episode ending with a genuinely engaging cliffhanger. None of this is incredibly complicated or complex, but it makes for enjoyable lightweight fare.
It’s important not to overstate Graceland’s good qualities. This is still a show finding its way, as the go-nowhere romantic subplots and the occasional lapses into cliché would indicate. But it’s a more compelling ride than many other pilots in this genre—or on this network—and it keeps that going in the fourth and fifth episodes. (USA didn’t send out the second and third, though a shortened “previously on” that summarizes the two episodes suggests that each episode has its moments.) And when all else fails, the show has an enjoyable level of meta-commentary to fall back on: The people in this universe are actors, having to make characters land in very high-stakes situations. What the show depicts is a kind of life-or-death improv theatre, and that gives the show some of its live-wire energy. The characters—both good and bad—are obsessed with movies and Hollywood and stories of derring do, right down to an African immigrant drug lord who waxes rhapsodic about romantic heroes and cowboys. If the characters in the show sometimes seem as if they’ve all taken a community college acting course for a humanities credit, well, that’s just a bonus. The slyest joke Graceland plays is that, deep down, it’s all about actors trying to look convincing on TV.
- Though the three episodes sent out aren’t perfect, they’re at least highly entertaining. And, hey, it’s a slow summer, and we have enough faith in Eastin to give this one a season’s worth of coverage. Why don’t you join us? What else do you have to do?