Ah, summer television, when the nights are short and the TV docket even shorter. USA, knowing we’re a captive audience, has rolled another odd-couple semi-procedural into its lineup; Graceland follows undercover FBI, DEA, and Customs agents as they fight crime under the California sun, and learn to trust each other—or DO they? (They don’t.)
An interesting phenomenon, USA: Its character-centric formula, working on a sliding comedy-action/serial-episodic scale, is so reliable that so long as these shows distinguish themselves enough to find an audience by the end of season one, they have every shot at a healthy run. This puts a USA premiere in the enviable position of having breathing room built into its front episodes. Executive producer Jeff Eastin, familiar with the setup from his prior outing, White Collar, takes full advantage of it in Graceland's pacing. “Guadalajara Dog” picks up at an easy lope from the pilot, introducing some more recurring characters, offering some seemingly-episodic plots that leave doors open, and putting some surprising speed on a season through-line.
Naturally, an episode of Graceland has its roots in the aesthetically-enviable frat palace of Delta Sigma Fed, where your lies are your life (except when you’re on public beaches or streets or hot dog stands near your safe house, at which point you yell each other’s real names all the time). Its inhabitants are in a state of semi-adolescence playing high stakes dress-up, and the chore wheel that’s been a plot point in 100 percent of the aired episodes so far might as well be the family crest. And chore-wheel devotee Mike Warren, new FBI grad assigned to this undercover bungalow under legendary Agent Paul Briggs, has been the focus of the action so far, our portal to the practicalities of not getting shot while setting traps.
But we’re also already starting to engage the pilot's big reveal—that Mike’s real assignment is to spy on Briggs and the Secret No One Talks About, which surprised the hell out of Mike and doubled down on the idea of a double life. Too bad Briggs has already saved Mike’s life, which should be nice and compromising.
Aaron Tveit is doing a savvy job presenting Mike as a slick, well-meaning blank slate. Without being particularly slimy, it’s clear that he succeeds undercover partly because there's not much under the lie that could trip him up. Except Briggs, of course; thanks to Daniel Sunjata, there’s no slate blanker than Briggs, who has to be a mystery to both Mike and the viewer right now. Together, they provide an episode’s worth of friendly unease, featuring a Guadalajara dog and a clandestine phone call at a hot dog stand, a game of interpersonal trust-chicken, and a stakeout for a cargo of armor-piercing rounds. Briggs wins the stakeout and gets a bead on Mike: can’t bullshit a bullshitter.
As Mike tries to get closer to Briggs by being impressive enough to confide in (imagine a courting bird in a nature documentary), we watch Briggs be the laid-back alpha bro of the house, dealing in favors like a banker. This is where the safety net pays off; Graceland has the most fun with the several scenes that put permutations of Delta Sigma Fed in the kitchen and have them shoot the shit at each other as a plot seeps in around the edges.
Also at the edge of the conversation so far are the women in the house, who, despite some potential in the ensemble scenes, have served mostly as potential-love-interest wallpaper; this week, they participated in the A-plots by being attractive to Mike, being bad at intel, needing favors from Briggs, and advising Mike. Next week’s preview featured one of them screwing up. This trend can turn around aaaany time.
But by and large, for the summer fare it’s meant to be, there’s promise. The episode’s undercover work mostly sets up some underworld players, gives Briggs a chance to outplan everyone, and proves Mike can shoot, but the show’s sun-glazed California scenery might not be up for anything more immediate yet, and the ensemble cast’s natural camaraderie lightens what could be cop-trope overload. (There’s still a little cop-trope overload: An appliance commercial halfway through the episode, featuring spoof procedural Task Force—“Sure you're making the right call?” “I don't make bad calls"—is two surfboards away from being actual show dialogue.) At the same time, there are some nice touches, such as Mike playing along through half a therapy session before calmly IDing the guy as his Internal Affairs contact; it’s a nice hint he might be better at undercover work than we think, except that our cliffhanger ending features Mike and Briggs alone in a warehouse, with only one of them pointing a gun and demanding answers about who Mike has been talking to, so maybe not.
The unexpectedly swift detente has its drawbacks; namely, given that this is a summer show about a federal frat and some undercover action, there’s a certain lack of stakes at this point. Mystery, yes; promise, yes. But we know this probably will not be a full reveal from wily Mike, just as we know that even though Briggs is aiming, he won’t kill Mike–or WILL he? (He won’t.)
- In case you’re worried the show’s too subtle about its thematic undertones, the characters spend a scene on the beach toasting "To our merry merry band of misfits!”
- Because this is USA, honeypot stings get nipped in the bud with a healthy dose of birth control—for him. If he can’t get it up, the night’s over and you’re never compromised because that’s all there is to it so everything’s fine! TV-14 forever! (Or until sweeps.)
- Mike informs his ‘therapist’ he wants to be FBI because “I believe that there’s evil in the world, and I’ll fight it and win.” It makes him sound about 7 years old, but it also comes just before he busts the guy. Deeply idealistic, or a savvy instance of being all things to all people? Only next week will tell.