“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.
FX has carved out an impressive niche for itself with diverse, envelope-pushing fare ranging from hard-hitting cop show The Shield to the wildly raunchy animated spy spoof Archer and the character-driven crime drama Justified. In some ways, however, The Americans, which premieres tonight with a special 90-minute episode, may be the channel’s riskiest venture yet.
Set in 1981, shortly after President Ronald Reagan’s first term begins, the period drama explores the complex lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell), who live in suburban Washington, D.C., with their two children, 13-year-old Paige (Holly Turner) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), 10. Philip and Elizabeth look like any clean-cut young couple pursuing the American dream, but the reality is far more sinister: They’re Russian spies who have spent the last several years in a KGB-arranged marriage, working for the Soviet Union.
As the story opens, Philip is beginning to have second thoughts about their double life. For one thing, Reagan’s sabre-rattling speeches have his Moscow bosses worried that the new president is one step away from declaring outright war on their country, which leads the Russians to ramp up their own covert activity stateside. For another, Philip is becoming more and more seduced by the role he has been assigned to play. His marriage to Elizabeth may have been set up by the Motherland, but their years together, especially raising their two kids, have sparked a genuine emotional bond between them. And when Philip discovers that their latest neighbor is an FBI counterintelligence agent (Noah Emmerich), he starts in earnest to consider defecting with his family.
Until they figure out a way to do that without jeopardizing their own lives, or those of their kids, Philip and Elizabeth are forced to continue their undercover dirty work for Moscow – and it can get pretty dirty indeed. Elizabeth, for example, goes all Rosa Klebb on one innocent young American, poisoning him to force his mother to plant a listening device in the home of a highly placed government official. Moreover, both of them freely engage in sex with their targets to get the information their bosses need.
In other words, The Americans asks us to identify with and root for a couple of “bad guys,” and the degree to which the show pulls that off is largely to the credit of its two stars, both superb. Rhys vividly conveys Philip’s deep ambivalence over his situation and his growing desperation to find a way out, while Russell is a revelation as this tough-as-nails KGB officer who still feels a very deep allegiance to Russia, even as she begins to realize her kids may wind up paying a heavy price if she and her husband don’t change sides.
The series judiciously employs flashbacks to give us perspective on how Elizabeth and Philip reached this crossroads, but after watching the two episodes FX provided for review, I’m still wondering about what motivated their younger selves to join the secret police in the first place. Were they coerced somehow, or did they just see these careers as a means to power and relative financial security? And now, are they considering defecting mainly out of fear and a desire to protect their comfortable American lifestyle, or are they genuinely remorseful for some of their past activities?
That ambiguity makes it hard for me to sign up for Team Elizabeth and Philip just yet, but the two stars, and the fast pace of their suspenseful show, will keep me watching over the next few weeks.
Braquo, the gritty French police drama that recently began streaming on Hulu and Hulu Plus, has been called France’s answer to The Wire, but fans of The Shield also will recognize some common themes in the show’s exploration of a group of Paris detectives whose notions of wrong and right become blurred from black and white to a soul-deadening gray, and not just because they’re usually wreathed in Gallic cigarette smoke.
The program, which was named best drama series during last November’s International Emmy Awards ceremonies in New York, opens as the group’s leader, Max (Olivier Rabourdin) – only two years away from retirement, but exhausted by stress and depression – finally snaps while interrogating a remorseless rape-murder suspect and violently attacks and disfigures the man. Internal Affairs, led by platinum-haired Roland Vogel (Geoffroy Thiebaut), comes down on Max like the wrath of God, putting him under relentless pressure with tragic results.
The appalling injustice of Max’s treatment compels his four colleagues to embark on a harrowing quest to clear his name. Their de facto leader, Eddy (Jean-Hugues Anglade), is pragmatic about crossing legal, moral and ethical lines to get results, as is Walter (Joseph Malerba), whose gruff, chrome-domed exterior conceals the heart of a teddy bear. Unfortunately, team member Theo (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is a coke-addicted loose cannon whose chronically bad choices soon have the group committing blackmail, larceny, murder and other big-ticket crimes, to the horror of the lone woman, Roxane (Karole Rocher), who is confronted with a terrible choice: go along and risk a prison sentence or rat out her male colleagues and be branded a stool pigeon, either of which would kill her promising career.
The French-language drama is primarily character-driven yet moves at the pace of a conventional action flick. Fans of the genre will soon find themselves completely sucked into this world, since all four of the principals inhabit their roles so completely that you start to feel as if you’ve been watching them for years. This is decidedly adult fare – in addition to the violence, there’s occasional sexual kink that makes the shenanigans on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit look like a Blossom rerun – and not for the faint-hearted. Unless you’re intensely averse to subtitles, check it out. Despite thematic links to the aforementioned two U.S. cable police dramas, Braquo (the title is French slang for a violent crime) is very much its own beast, and a fascinating one at that.
At present, the first two episodes of Braquo are available for viewing, with a new episode added every Tuesday. If you’re interested in exploring more TV shows and films from abroad, Hulu’s a great place to start your search. The streaming service is home to hundreds of titles in the critically acclaimed Criterion Collection of world cinema, and new TV shows from around the world join the rotation on a regular basis.