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Graceland - 1.01 - Pilot - Review

USA Network’s newest series, Graceland, premiered Thursday night with a promising start – a strong cast, great chemistry, an intriguing plot, the promise of deep character exploration, and the fantasy factor – the thing that sets it apart and appeals to you on a superficial but very human level. The premise of the show is that a rookie FBI agent gets assigned against his wishes to a beat that means staying in a Southern California beach house formerly owned by a drug lord who had an affinity for all things Elvis.  The agent shares this home with a mix of FBI, DEA, and Customs agents.

A Strong Cast
Of what promises to be a strong ensemble cast, I have my favorite picked out already. Daniel Sunjata joins Graceland from Rescue Me as well as a number of other TV and movie roles, to play Paul Briggs, a brilliant, secretive, tortured FBI agent with apparently something pretty big to hide – big enough to build a TV series plot around. I like tortured. Sunjata sold me with his portrayal of a man who was once driven but is now cynical, and as we learn in the pilot episode, is “off in the pursuit of the perfect bottle of rum.”

Joining him in the center of the story is Aaron Tveit as rookie agent Mike Warren. I have to admit, I was a little nervous from the previews about the age of the cast, given how young the lead looked. I’m leery of TV series centered around young, inexperienced, impulsive characters who are coming of age (looking at you Revolution). But Warren didn’t act anywhere near as young as he looks. He was fresh off the farm (the FBI farm), and there was a joke or two about how white he was in heavily Hispanic Southern California, but Warren quickly took in the seriousness of his situation and didn’t do anything stupid. In fact, he was smart. Tveit, according to his bio, is actually about 30, rather than the 20 he looks, and has some impressive TV and movie credits under his belt, including Les Miserables. He delivered believability to the character and left me wanting more.

While we didn’t see as much of the rest of the cast, there were no apparent weak links. USA Network always seems to launch shows with strong casts, and from what I’ve seen so far, this one meets expectations.

Great Chemistry
I read a preview that compared this to The Real World, in the way a bunch of strangers come to live together in a beautiful home, and this did have a bit of a Real World vibe to it. The group is finding its rhythm as the new agent is inserted into their home, but they interact well together – which is exactly why it’s such a gut-wrenching discovery at the end of the episode when Mike learns he has to betray their trust by investigating Briggs.

An Intriguing Plot
I don’t know enough from the pilot to have any clue where this is going yet, but from the fact that this was based on a true story, and the story in its entirety was judged interesting and complex enough to warrant a TV series, I think it’s going to be good. I’ll admit, I don’t know the true story behind it, and I don’t think I want to – I want to just experience it as it unfolds.

The Promise of Deep Character Exploration
The show hits you right from the start with the message that this is about the real world, and about dual identities and lies. It’s dark. I like dark. The dangers are real. As the speaker at the FBI graduation ceremonies tells the group: “You have absolutely no idea what life has in store for you. You will make mistakes. You are not perfect. You will fail. And when that day comes, when you figure it out. I hope you’ll have the brains, the guts, and the straight up good luck to survive it.”

The Fantasy Factor
Now how many of you, when you saw that gorgeous beach and the waves, didn’t want to be there? In a few ways (not many, but a few), this show reminded me a little of Lost. At least in the first couple of seasons of Lost, I think part of the appeal of the show was the fantasy – the idea of losing yourself, your life, and your problems, to a life of introspection and reinvention on a beautiful island, eating mangos all day long and sitting by the campfire at night surrounded by beautiful people. This show seemed to capitalize on that fantasy at least a little in the premiere. Everything is a lie. The setting is a beautiful beach house, and the characters take a surfing timeout so that the cameras can capture close-ups of those wonderful SoCal waves. We end with a nighttime beach campfire (again, surrounded by beautiful people). All we need is some mangos, and maybe a smokemonster, but maybe that's where our Customs and DEA friends come in.

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