After a brief hiatus This Week in Black Television returns with a review of GRACELAND, the new series from White Collar creator Jeff Eastin that stars Daniel Sunjata and premieres tonight at 10pm EST on the USA Network.
The USA Network is widely known for its "blue sky" shows, original regular series that despite their quirky and flawed characters whose, according to Original Programming President Jeff Wachtel back in 2010, "weaknesses was also their strengths,"(see USA's "Characters Welcome" marketing) generally take place in cities where they sky is often sunny and bright and the settings allow the characters (and the viewer) to be filled with hopefulness, despite their un-sunny dispositions. They are often naturally somewhat light-hearted as well. Shows covered previously in this column like Psych, Burn Notice, and Suits set in Santa Barbara, Miami and New York City, respectively, fit this bill to a tee – and the marketing and series often work. Um, except last summer's Common Law with Michael Ealy (set in New Orleans).
That said, Graceland, with its obvious Southern California surfer-imbued, hazy skyline, palm trees promoted advertising looked to be pretty-light hearted and jokey. But that is so not the case. The basic premise of the show is that various top agents from the FBI, DEA, and Customs live and work out of a seized Southern California beachfront property seized years ago by the US government in a raid from a hardcore Elvis fan. This house is unofficially known as "Graceland" and as usual for television shows is as unrealistically spacious and beautiful inside as it is out. The house is also as full of good and bad memories as it is deep secrets held by its current and former occupants.
We are guided through this new world by Mike Warren, a bright-eyed by the book graduate from the FBI academy that graduated from the top of his class and is assigned to Graceland by agent Sam Campbell (Courtney B. Vance), who eloquently tells the new class on graduation day, "Whatever you think success means, you’ve got it all wrong." Played confidently by newcomer Aaron Tveit, trainee Mike Warren is immediately thrust into this new lifestyle and is excited to work with the team leader agent Paul Briggs, who he thinks based on FBI records is a sterling by-the-books agent. He is sterling, and the best there is at what he does, but Briggs, played Daniel Sunjata (Rescue Me, The Devil Wears Prada) in his first-ever leading role, anchors both the team and this show with a scruffy yet effective devil-may-care attitude. Briggs has seen some dark stuff and his attitude and need for surfing (told you it was ‘blue skies’) reflects that.
We are introduced to other members of the team through their work. Customs agent Dale Jakes, played by This Week in Black Television fav Brandon Jay McLaren, is investigating illegal bird smuggling done through some rastas, and McLaren humorously tries his best at a Jamaican accent while doing so. Last seen in The Killing and Falling Skies, lets hope his stoic yet likeable character does not meet the gruesome fate his last two shows gave him. Likeable NY'er Charlie DeMarco (Vanessa Ferlito – The Sopranos, CSI: NY), funnyman Joe 'Johnny' Turturro (Manny Montana, The Chicago Code), and hardcore angry girl Paige Arkin (Serinda Swan, Breakout Kings) round out the crew. From the intros of most of the characters, and their dispositions, it is clear that they, just like Briggs, have led some dark lives as well.
Halfway into the pilot Johnny and Briggs show Mike how to surf and introduce him to the SoCal lifestyle, making this critic itch for some action beyond a drug deal that Arkin and her former partner screwed up in the opening. But that quickly changes as Mike is put on his first case, which soon spirals into an intense situation in which we see how well the other agents shine under pressure, how sharp of an agent Mike will be, and why Briggs is not only a top agent, but also mired in grey and definitely not the dude Mike thinks he is. "Your lies are your life," Briggs tells his young padawan Mike, and a phone call late into the pilot reveals how true for Mike that will be. As was told to him at the FBI graduation, success indeed is not what you think it will mean.
Graceland is a stylish show that fits tightly into the USA Networks dynamic of shows, much better than the cancelled Common Law did last year. But it is also a lot darker in tone than the rest, with heavy characters and situations that will hopefully remain as gripping as they did in the pilot. I get what the writers are trying to do with Sunjata, but he is not initially as likeable of a jerk as Gabriel Macht's Harvey Specter on Suits and is much more in line with Mary McCormack's Mary Shannon on In Plain Sight. Still, this is more of a bromance show and Sunjata does have the chops to build Briggs into a solid character while both teaching and learning from his new trainee.
Graceland will remain on Thursdays at 10pm and future episodes will feature Gbenga Akinnagbe as a Nigerian crime boss as reported previously on S&A.