USA's new crime drama, 'Graceland' debuted Sunday night with its pilot episode. We previously speculated whether the new series would prove successful, popular and be able to balance the light-hearted comedic element with its more serious nature. After Sunday night's premiere, I think it's safe to say that the show is off to a strong start.
The show is by Jeff Eastin, the creator of 'White Collar,' and stars Aaron Tveit as the main character, Special Agent Mike Warren. He has just graduated as an FBI agent at the top of his class with a practical score of 170, as the characters never tire of mentioning. Rather than getting his desired assignment in Washington D.C. the rookie agent is transferred to 'Graceland', a luxurious California beach house owned by a former drug lord seized in an FBI raid
Warren gets this emergency transfer to 'Graceland' after DEA agent Donnie Banks is shot during a drug deal gone wrong, Hunted by both Latino gangs and the Russian mafia, Banks is sent to a safe house.
Parts of the pilot has a comedic, almost 'Jersey Shore' feel. The first agent that Mike meets is Johnny (Manny Montana), another FBI agent who picks him up at the airport after he waits there for two hour. He's clearly intended to be the less serious, more comedic relief agent. He's still good at his job and gives Mike plenty of advice for getting used to operations in Santa Monica, California.
The 'Graceland' House is inhabited by a number of different agencies including the FBI, DEA and Customs. The show certainly has moments of levity, particularly when Mike is first introduced to the other characters. He faces a cold reception from Donnie's girlfriend Paige (Serinda Swan), who warns him not to get too comfortable or move Donnie's stuff around. Then he encounters Dale (Brandon Jay McLaren), also known as D.J. who gets angry at him for drinking his orange juice and finally meets his superior, the famous agent Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata), who is the top FBI operative. Mike, who has built Briggs up to almost demi-god status, is surprised when a disheveled Briggs walks into the kitchen, grabs a bottle of rum and heads back to bed in the middle of the afternoon. It feels a lot more like an FBI frat house than an undercover operation.
To add to the frat house air, there is an elongated surfing scene where Briggs, Mike and Johnny catch some waves. The scene's purpose seems to be to showcase Tveit's impossibly perfect hair (Mike wipes out more often than not, but a hair is never out of place). Mike makes small-talk with Charlie (Vanessa Ferlito), who is clearly intended to be his love interest. She also claims that "There are no secrets at Graceland," which is clearly untrue because there are plenty of secrets at Graceland, like Briggs' history and background. There wouldn't be a show here without secrets at Graceland.
Mike is quickly thrown into his first mission after various shenanigans happen involving a fake drug-buy paid with knock-off Levi jeans. The dealer is a small-time, fairly harmless middleman. The Russian mafia comes down hard, suspecting that he intends to roll on them. Because he is a three-strike offender and they cannot bail him and kill him, they kidnap his entire family, including his wife, son and daughter. Desperate, he tells them that the man he was with was his brother-in-law.
Mike is chosen to go undercover as his brother-in-law because he bears a vague resemblance to him. After getting some makeup and a quick background training session, he is sent to the Russians who demand that he kill someone in exchange for the lives of his brother-in-law's family. As you might expect, the man they want him to kill is Donnie. They drop him off in the safe house and tell him to empty his gun. Fortunately, they're able to avoid killing each other at the last moment.
Two Russian mafia members waiting in the car outside aren't so lucky, as a trigger happy Briggs shoots them both dead before he can even check to see if they have a gun (it turns out that they do, but there was no way for Briggs to know that). Mike covers for Briggs, but we can see that this incident is beginning to raise Mike's suspicions about Briggs. His suspicions are confirmed when he gets a call from Quantico informing him that his real mission is to investigate Agent Briggs, something Briggs clearly also suspects.
The show ends on this cliffhanger, and we are left wondering how Mike will be able to handle the formidable Briggs and what Briggs has done to warrant the FBI investigating their own top agent. It's not Tveit that really stood out in the pilot, it was Sunjata, who was able to go from affable to menacing in the same scene. The episode 2 trailer drops some hints about how things will develop next episode:
Briggs is clearly supposed to be ruthless and mysterious. There is also reference made to some major event that happened in his passed which caused him to leave the agency for a time and return a changed and more relaxed man. The trailer suggests future developments in this plotline, with Briggs asking Mike, "Do you trust me?" and Mike coolly replying "No." Issues of trust among the agents at Graceland is clearly a major ongoing theme.
Mike continues displays reluctance at having to investigate his idol Briggs, but he is strong-armed by the FBI, who tell him a successful investigation will get him a ticket to his preferred assignment in D.C. We suspect that Briggs might be a double agent, working for both the mafia and FBI. He would have to be up to something major to warrant this kind of interest. On the other hand, why send a rookie agent to investigate an expert? There are lots of things that don't add up with the way the FBI is behaving which makes us think that there is some corruption at the top also at play.
For most these question we will likely have to wait for the next episode. The second episode of the series, 'Guadalajara Dog,' is set to premiere Thursday June 13th, 2013. 'Graceland' is a worthwhile addition to the summer lineup. The show is more serious than most USA shows but there are plenty of moments of levity and comedy to break the tension. We recommend it based off the pilot.
What do you think of the pilot episode?