June 7, 2013



GRACELAND:  Thursday 10PM on USA

As we all know, if there’s one thing USA Network wants us to remember about itself, it’s that the network is a place where characters–which is to say the memorable kind– are welcome.  On first exposure, though, the only thing really distinctive about the network’s hugely-hyped new series GRACELAND is its setting.  That’s particularly surprising since Graceland is the work of series creator Jeff Eastin, whose White Collar does have several well-etched USA personages.  So far, though, and despite what’s becoming the expected last-minute pilot reveal, the populace in Graceland seem rather generic.

Graceland takes off–in a highly fictionalized way, one can be certain–from the real-life fact that a luxury beachfront home in Malibu seized by the government from a drug-lord (said drug-lord was an Elvis fan, hence the name of the house and the show) was used by law enforcement authorities as a joint residence for several of their undercover agents.  The house used in the show is gorgeous–think the living spaces on The Real World–and as on MTV, the mix of FBI, DEA and Customs officers who occupy it are all young and outrageously good-looking.  This being a pilot, our point of entry into the story is a brand-new agent and resident, Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit, best known for singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” as Enjolras in the film of Les Miserables).  Mike’s first assignment post-Quantico graduation is to join the Graceland crew, working with the master of the house (not to overdo the Les Miz references), super-cool veteran and training officer Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata).  Also on hand are FBI agents Charlie Lopez (Vanessa Ferlito) and Johnny Turturro (Manny Montana) and Customs agent DJ Jakes (Paige Arkin)–as well as DEA agent Lauren Kincaid (Scottie Thompson), but she’s listed as a guest star, so it’s not clear how much we’ll be seeing of her.

The Graceland brigade is generally mellow (they surf in the mornings and bicker about doing household chores), but of course they’re crack agents when the time comes, and it’s not long before Mike is pretending to be a drug dealer in a buy that doesn’t go as planned, then improvising a cover story for a Russian crime boss while hoping Briggs can rescue him in time–all of which ties back to Lauren’s DEA partner, shot in the episode’s opening.  This is very routine cop-show material, aside from the splendid location, and then when the Big Twist arrives in the last 30 seconds, it informs not just us but Mike as well that there’s an ulterior reason for his presence at Graceland, one that’s meant to complicate the relationships he’s forming there.  Unfortunately, even that twist is the obvious one, so it’s less shocking than the show seems to think it is.  (It actually brings Graceland squarely into the White Collar orbit, where the ongoing question will be how much one of the main characters can really trust the other.)

There’s nothing very exciting about Graceland, but it seems like decent, undemanding summer entertainment, especially if the pace quickens from the pilot’s somewhat languid trot.  This is a recurring problem with USA and Syfy pilots, because they’re shot to run 90 minutes (with commercials), so if they aren’t ordered to series, they can still be sold overseas as TV-movies, which tends to make them feel padded.  Russell Lee Fine shoots the main setting and the frequent surfing sequences beautifully, and some of the nighttime exteriors have a smoggy smear as shot in HD that recalls Michael Mann’s Collateral.  Tveit is somewhat bland in the pilot, but he’s shown that he has other resources (he was nicely nasty on a Gossip Girl arc), so perhaps the fact that he’ll be taking on other personas while undercover will flesh his character out.  Sunjata, so far, has much less to do here than he did back on Rescue Me, and the other regulars aren’t more than pleasant wallpaper; even Jay Karnes, guest-starring as the FBI agent in charge, makes little impression here.

Perhaps Graceland has some surprises up its sleeve, but what it seems to lack, oddly enough, is character.


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."