“There are no secrets in Graceland,” one of FBI newbie Mike Warren’s (Aaron Tveit) undercover colleagues tells him in tonight’s premiere of USA Network’s provocative new drama. The agent in question, Catherine “Charlie” DeMarco (Vanessa Ferlito, CSI: NY), probably isn’t willfully lying – she’s mainly talking about how close-knit the diverse folks who share a luxurious California beach house are – but she’s definitely stretching the truth.
If you’ve seen any of the gazillion promos USA has been running for the show, you’d be forgiven if you were tempted to dismiss Graceland as a contrived and ludicrous hybrid of Baywatch and a gritty cop drama such as The Shield. In fact, however, series creator Jeff Eastin (White Collar) based this new series on an actual beachfront property the U.S. Government seized in 1992 and really did use as an undercover residence for federal agents of the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Customs until 2001.
In the series, Graceland – which got its nickname from the Elvis-obsessed drug kingpin who previously owned the property – is where Mike is assigned fresh out of graduating top of his class at Quantico. He’s a little stunned to be here, having expected a position in Washington, D.C., but he’s here to train with Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata, Rescue Me), a senior FBI agent with a formidable track record (and, he notes smugly, even higher test scores than Mike got). In addition to Paul, Mike and the aforementioned Charlie, Graceland’s other current residents include Johnny Tuturro (Manny Montana), a fun-loving prankster with Navy SEAL training; Dale “DJ” Jakes (Brandon Jay McLaren), a hot-headed U.S. Customs agent who hates it when his roommates touch his “stuff”; and Paige Arkin (Serinda Small), a DEA undercover agent who views Mike warily, since he’s moving into the room previously occupied by her regular partner, currently sidelined after a drug deal gone wrong.
As Paul is quick to remind Mike, they are all in a career that calls on them to lie for a living, keeping their activities a secret from their friends and loved ones. Viewers soon discover, however, just about everyone in Graceland is harboring secrets of their own – including Mike, who will discover at the end of his first day why his FBI bosses really sent him to Southern California.
Tveit, a Broadway musical star who played the student revolutionary Enjolras in the big-screen Les Miserables, is being touted as USA Networks’ next great white hottie, but he’s got a lot more going for him than superficial good looks. Maybe it’s partly because he starred as celebrated con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. in the Broadway musical Catch Me If You Can, but the actor makes an uncommonly polished TV series debut in this demanding role as a guy whose life depends on getting others to believe he is someone he is not. He also has a relaxed chemistry with Sunjata, which helps keep their characters from falling into the stereotypes of by-the-book rookie and more pragmatic veteran. Among the other players, Ferlito is a knockout as the chameleon-like Charlie.
Based on the three episodes I’ve seen, Graceland looks like one of the most interesting shows USA has fielded to date. It’s also a bit darker than most of the rest of the USA lineup, but that’s a good thing, as far as I am concerned.
Airing immediately before Graceland, Burn Notice, one of USA’s first major success stories in the scripted drama genre, begins its 7th and final season in somber style. Out of respect for a show that has given fans a lot of pleasure over the years with its intricate, action-packed episodes, let me just say that tonight’s premiere – and next week’s episode, the show’s 100th – suggest that it’s time to say goodbye.
Up to now, Burn Notice has managed to hold our attention despite following a fairly standard formula each season: Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) chases a Very Bad Person who is somehow linked to Michael’s current career crisis as a “burned” (discredited) spy, only to discover, as a rule, that someone even worse is waiting behind the next door. Last season, Michael shot and killed an unspeakably vile U.S. official (guest star John C. McGinley) who was responsible for the murder of Michael’s kid brother, landing Michael and his friends in such hot water that, this season, he is forced to do off-the-books undercover work for the CIA to keep them all out of prison.
Unfortunately, that new premise keeps Michael segregated from the rest of his extended family – former fiancée Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), best friend Sam (Bruce Campbell), tech wizard Jesse (Coby Bell), and mom Maddie (Sharon Gless), a once-feisty character who now spends most of her time dithering and whining. I’m sure the writers probably have contrived a way to bring all these characters back together as this final season unfolds, but the delightfully snappy interplay among these once-vivid characters feels as if it’s been irretrievably broken. That’s sad, because while it was firing on all cylinders, Burn Notice almost always was a blast – one that didn’t rely entirely on Fiona’s penchant for C-4.