June 12, 2014

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “Graceland”


GRACELAND:  Wednesday 10PM on USA

GRACELAND is USA’s attempt to meld its jokey procedural sensibility (and that of series creator Jeff Eastin, who previously created White Collar for the network) to the kind of hipper, darker crime dramas that distinguish other cable networks.  The title refers to a seized drug dealer’s beachside house in Southern California (based oh-so-loosely on real life) used for collaborative undercover operations involving agents from the FBI, DEA and ICE when they aren’t surfing.  No one’s heart really seems to be into the “darker” part:  in Season 1, while the show played with the notion that hero FBI agent Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata) was actually a ruthless drug dealer, it didn’t pull the trigger on the idea, and based on tonight’s premiere, Season 2 looks to be more of the same.

The episode, written by Eastin and directed by Russell Lee Fine, set the pieces in place for the upcoming 13 weeks.  Some time had passed since the events of the finale, and FBI agent Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit), whose secret mission in Season 1 had been to investigate Briggs, was back in Washington, with a high-level new girlfriend (Emily Rose, from Haven) and mild withdrawal from missing the juice of being undercover the way he’d been at Graceland.  Mike hops on a plane when Briggs has the idea of exploiting his old undercover persona to lure cartel hit men after him and get them to implicate their superiors–and then it all turns out to tie in to Mike’s own theory back in DC that the cartels are using passenger buses to smuggle tons of heroin into the US, which of course no one else had believed.  By the end of the hour, the big kicker was that all the other Graceland residents, from Briggs on down, were now working for Mike as he tries to uncover the bus ring, and oh boy, won’t that be uncomfortable for everyone!

Graceland is stuck in an uncomfortable middle, not as much fun as the more light-hearted USA fare, certainly not as smart as Suits (or, recently, even Covert Affairs), but also not as gritty or surprising as the FX, AMC or pay-cable shows it seeks to emulate.  It’s glossy and somewhat sad in its attempts to be sexy and cool–the women on the show are romantically paired up with the male stars, as Charlie (Vanessa Ferlito), is now Briggs’ love interest, and DEA agent Paige (Serinda Swan) will almost certainly soon be Mike’s–and it makes only token attempts at deepening its characters, particularly in the relationship between ICE agent DJ (Brandon Jay McLaren) and his young son.  The talented cast often looks like it’s posing for a photo shoot (Sunjata with his just-so level of five o’clock shadow, Swan in her short shorts), and even when something darker is revealed about the characters, like Briggs’ and Charlie’s drug histories in Season 1, it doesn’t pack much emotional power.  While good serialized crime series widen and complicate the world of their stories (like FX’s current Fargo), Graceland just introduces new plot twists.

Graceland left some loose ends at the close of Season 1, notably a tape recording that would serve as evidence that Briggs had (mistakenly) murdered an honest FBI agent who was impersonating a bad guy, and presumably some of that will resurface in Season 2.  (For reasons as yet unexplained, Charlie is keeping watch on someone with the same last name as the dead FBI agent.)  Nothing in the hour, however, suggested a show more gripping than last year’s version, a status reflected in its ratings, which started at 0.8 in 18-49s and drifted down to an unimpressive 0.6 by the end of the run (even with the series finale of Burn Notce as its lead-in).  It’s been a long time since USA had a breakout hit, and as much as the network is trying to paint it as such, Graceland shows little sign of being the one.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."