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When you're undercover, lies are your life.
"You gotta know which rules to break."
Facts of the Case
FBI Agent Mike Warren (Aaron Tviet, Premium Rush) is a fresh graduate from Quantico, top of his class. Instead of getting the assignment of his choice, he's placed in "Graceland," a posh beach house in southern California shared by several government agencies. (The house got its name from the Elvis-obsessed drug lord who used to own it.)
At Graceland, Mike is training under the supervision of his hero, FBI legend Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata, Rescue Me). He also lives with an assortment of other hot, young law enforcement types. In addition to Briggs, there are two other FBI agents: goofy hotshot Johnny (Manny Montana, Go for Sisters) and house matron figure Charlie (Vanessa Ferlito, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). There's also DEA agent Paige (Serinda Swan, Breakout Kings), who doesn't really have a personality, and customs whiz Jakes (Brandon Jay McLaren, Being Erica), who always acts like someone just peed in his cereal.
As the ragtag gang of (hot) agents fight crime and bond with Mike, none of them realize his real mission: to investigate Briggs, who the Bureau thinks may be running a dirty game.
If you can get past the reality show-like set up, the unusually sexy cast, and the overblown "whoaaaaa, California" visual style, you might find that Graceland is a clever show. A dark one, too—which is surprising, with it coming from the typically sunny USA Network. The show goes through all of the usual mindless entertainment motions, but it pulls enough shocking and well-planned moves to make it more interesting than many of its basic cable peers.
Graceland is the creation Jeff Eastin, who also helms USA's White Collar. The show's central hook—people from different law enforcement agencies living under the same roof—is drawn from real life. It's a good one, too. The occupants of Graceland all have their own cases, though there's enough agency overlap to keep the cast together on most episodes. Mike and Briggs get the most screentime, and their complex mentor/spy relationship becomes an emotional, believable thing as the season progresses. Throughout his FBI training, Mike idolized Briggs—the senior agent was widely regarded for his quick-thinking skills in the field. Mike being denied his dream assignment in D.C. and assigned to rat out Briggs provides a simple, yet effective, source of conflict for the show to draw from.
The show usually operates on a "case of the week" model, supplementing that with a longer serialized storyline that covers the whole season. Most of these storylines are old hat, especially the stand-alone cases—if you've watched any sort of crime show, you'll have a good idea of what to expect. But I applaud how the show takes a few creative turns here and there, adding little unexpected character elements in or adding in a narrative zig when I was expecting a zag. Still, the season slowly gives way to convention, and the last few episodes sadly lack a lot of the surprise and pizazz of the earlier ones. The show also makes a lot of the stories' dramatic climaxes pivot on how convincing the agents are at improvising; watching Mike and Briggs try crazy things undercover is cool the first few times, but the shtick starts losing flavor rapidly. Still, the dark thematic notes that surface are surprising, especially for this sort of show—the message here seems to be that undercover police work is a one-way ticket to sorrow, loss, and defeat.
The cast does a fairly good job with the material. Sunjata is amazingly charismatic as Briggs, and Tviet's amorphous personality works as a nice foil. Montana and Ferlito are also great in their roles, and watching the four FBI agents bicker off-duty in the house is a lot of fun. Swan and McLaren aren't as fortunate—their characters get the short end of the stick, even with the late-season attempts to raise Jakes and Paige from something other than a killjoy and eye candy (respectively). Jakes' family issues and maturity have a lot of story potential, much of it squandered. Graceland pulls off a few excellent supporting roles, specifically Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones) as the FBI agent who oversees Mike, and Gbenga Akinnagbe (The Wire) as an enigmatic drug czar.
Fox's release of Graceland: The Complete First Season features all 12 episodes on three discs. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks great for standard definition. The show uses a lot of flashy techniques, but when it slows down it comes across as richly colored and nicely shot. There's is a bit of orange and blue color grading, which usually drives me crazy but isn't too bad here. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is good too, though not out of the ordinary. Dialogue is clear and front-and-center, and background noises fill the channels nicely. Sometimes music punches through too much, but the snippets are short enough that the madness doesn't last long. The extras are the usual round-up: a gag reel (7:01); a fair number of deleted scenes spread across the three discs (total of 33:03); and the brief but informative featurette "The Real Graceland" (10:37).
Graceland is an incredibly formulaic show, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't get hooked after a few episodes. It balances its dumbness with a willingness to try new things and dig a little deeper with character and plot.
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