The USA network has a style that I find attractive, no matter how often they use it. Suits, White Collar, and Burn Notice have all benefited from this template: a golden concoction of snappy dialog, subtle humor, dramatic plots, and interesting characters. Graceland, much like Achilles, seems to have been dipped in the elixir by the ankle — thus left with a fatal flaw. But more on that later.
Graceland begins as a basic undercover cop story, a blend of The Fast and The Furious and Point Break (two of my favorite mindless action movies), and a true-crime-style text opening. It reads something to the effect of “A drug lord’s house was seized in Manhattan Beach (although it looks an awful lot like Malibu). This is being used as the base of operations for a multi-agency undercover unit. It is known as Graceland.” As with most of those text-plus-narration openings, it’s completely superfluous and dialog during the first fifteen minutes covers all of those same points. That’s fine, though, with network TV they tend to repeat background and plot points out of fear it will get lost on the audience. After the text, the audience is thrown right into the middle of a drug deal. Our hero, for the moment, Donnie Banks (Clayne Crawford) is attempting to falsify a heroin injection. Graceland excels at this type of scene: very little dialog and a ton of suspense. The best part? The suspense is paid off when the drug deal goes wrong and Donnie is shot. A brand new opening in Donnie’s shoulder creates a brand new opening in the Graceland unit.
Three thousand miles away Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit) graduates from Quantico at the top of his class. With a resumé like that, Mike would receive any post he requests, and he does. Mike requests Washington, D.C. — putting him on the fast track to make director of the FBI. Unless, of course, the brass considers his presence at Graceland an absolute must, and they do. So, special agent Mike Warren, who cannot yet speak Spanish, is on his way to Graceland.
Mike meets the rest of the crew: Dale ‘DJ’ Jakes (Brandon Jay McLaren), a customs agent who often sports a Rastafarian accent, Joe ‘Johnny’ Tuturro (Manny Montana), the token DEA Asian character, Catherine ‘Charlie’ DeMarco (Vanessa Ferlito), the scrappy female FBI agent and possible love interest, and Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata), the mysterious leader and former FBI golden boy. Paige Arkin (Serinda Swan), in deep cover and absent from the pilot, is the other DEA agent of the house. A straight laced, by-the-book (he has the book memorized) agent might seem out of place in a house full of agents posing as drug dealers and beach bums — because he is out of place. Earlier I compared Graceland to Point Break: special agent Johnny Utah, a football star from the middle of the country, is placed on assignment to infiltrate a clan of bank robbers/surfers. The only way to infiltrate Californian criminal circles, I’ve learned from both Point Break and Graceland, is to learn to surf. The surfing scene is almost identical to Point Break; there is even a line about surfing being ‘better than sex’. Something tells me that won’t be the last time we hear flagrant plagiarism of Point Break.
Eventually, Mike gets his first assignment: busting a low-level dealer with connections to the Russian mob. It should be mentioned that, while Spanish is a necessity to work deep cover, the Russian’s are also in LA, and a few of the members speak that language as well. In fact, basically every agent in the house is Trilingual, with the exception of Mike. That disadvantage must be charming, or something (truthfully, he’s learning very fast, which is charming). Anyway, the drug dealer, Felix Arroyo (Mark Adair-Rios), attempts to trade a truckload of jeans for the drugs Mike brought. Felix is arrested and, we have to assume, questioned. These events are proceeded by a much more important undercover operation, ending with Briggs saving Mike’s life. The turns and twists of the final fifteen minutes were exciting and unexpected, ending on a game-changer: Mike is there to spy on Briggs and report to the FBI. And he seems to be okay with it.
So far, the show is not bad; it’s well paced, action-packed, and keeps you interested in the present and future of the show. The Achilles heel, as I had mentioned before, seems to be the dialog. The dialog is often bad — but what’s worse is it’s often wasted. Great moments for great lines are usually completely missed and it affects the characterization in a negative way; I had a hard time caring about many of the other agents because they weren’t funny or original. I do have faith, though, this sh
ow will not suffer the same ill fate Achilles did. Writing can get stronger and, if it does, the show will rival even my beloved Suits — because spy-fiction is still my favorite genre — with two of the most interesting characters on USA.
Graceland is currently in its first season and airs Thursdays at 10 PM PST on USA. You can catch up on episodes on Hulu.