Graceland Review: Catch the Wave
USA Network’s anticipated new crime drama, Graceland, made its Thursday night debut and I have to say, the pilot exceeded my expectations.
The premise of the series revolves around a safe house in Southern California known as Graceland, property seized by the federal government in a drug raid that is now home to a mixture of agents from the F.B.I., D.E.A., and Customs. We meet Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit), a recent top-notch graduate from Quantico, on his way to join the ranks. He’s a little buttoned up, a tad eager, and a lot green—but he’s also smart, easygoing, and willing to put in the work. His trainer in undercover operations is Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata), the only agent to score higher on the Bureau’s exit exam than Warren himself. Briggs is considered to be the best of the best back at Quantico, and when Mike finds a drunken playboy who wants to talk about anything but work instead of the larger than life mentor he expected, he’s feels more than a little unmoored. Instead of passing on intelligence and experience, Briggs takes Mike surfing and makes him take his turn on the house’s chose wheel, but while trying to find his footing on California’s sand, Mike follows Briggs’ lead.
Mike feels his way along as the new guy in the house, apologizing to cranky Customs’ officer Dale Jakes (Branden Jay McLaren) for drinking his orange juice, tiptoeing around D.E.A. agent Paige Arkin (Serinda Swan), whose partner was recently shot when he blew his cover, and navigating an adorable meet-cute with Charlie (Vanessa Ferlito). The introductions to the characters and establishment of the house dynamic felt authentic and not as expository as it could have been, and Manny Montana’s character Johnny Tuturro provided a perfectly affable comic relief to what otherwise might have been an overly tense series of scenes.
Paige is hurting over her partner’s near miss, and when she sees a chance to take down the Russian dealers who shot him, she convinces Briggs to join the party. He and Johnny bring Mike up to speed on the players, past covers, and some quick and dirty tricks of the trade, and the exchange contains a brilliantly written blend of comedy and tension that, while enjoyable, leaves no doubt in our minds that these guys are walking into a seriously dangerous situation.
The deal goes awry fairly fast, but Mike Warren didn’t graduate at the top of his class without learning to think on his feet, and soon the veterans are scrambling to keep up with their rookie. When their source throws a monkey wrench in at the last minute, Mike ends up in the deep end of the pool on his first day–and he hasn’t really even learned how to surf, yet. Briggs exchanges his laid back surfer boy attitude in the nick of time, donning the tough cop exterior that had earned him accolades in the beginning of his career, and ends up saving Mike’s life.
The pilot’s writers execute a tight storyline, dumping tons of information without dragging down the pace of the episode, and introducing us to a pretty extensive cast without making anyone forgettable—which, as a writer, I can tell you is no easy task. The cast, particularly Tveit and Ferlito, slip into the skin of their character’s with more ease than expected at the outset of a new project, and the nuances of their expression and reactions are a pleasure to watch. Sunjata’s character of Briggs harbors plenty of secrets—as Charlie says during the episode, “there are no secrets at Graceland…except for Briggs”—so I suspect as Mike learns more about what caused his partner’s shift from hardass to playboy, we’ll get to watch Sunjata mine the depths of what has the potential to be a very interesting character.
There will be no shortage of relationship dynamics with a bunch of adults sharing living space, and the twist thrown in at the end is sure to blow up in several faces down the line…Mike Warren was assigned to Graceland to investigate Paul Briggs.
Mike is lying to Briggs. Briggs doesn’t trust Mike. There will be, presumably, at least some sexual tension brewing between the admittedly adorable Tveit and at least one of his female housemates, but at the moment, that intrigues me less than watching the relationship unfold between the series’ leads.
Graceland leapt out to a strong start, embodying all of the things that USA typically does well—strong characters, interesting concepts, and an enviable balance of humor and drama. Being along for the ride with two guys who trust each other with their lives—but not their secrets—is very appealing, indeed.
Season 1, Episode 1 “Pilot” (originally aired June 6, 2013)
Graceland airs Thursday nights at 10/9c on USA.
Images courtesy of USA Network and NBC Universal Pictures.
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