'Graceland' Can't Decide If It's Glam or Gritty — But It's Good

Based on the true story of a seized Southern California beach house that became home to undercover government agents, Graceland's premise may sound ripe for a reality show — but it's USA's darkest drama yet. Though I really wasn't digging the premiere at first, it ultimately won me over. 

Newly minted agent Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit) is a straight-laced company man who comes to Graceland after his request for a job in D.C. was denied. He has the delicate, vaguely Germanic bone structure — and heathered cardigan — of a preppier Urban Outfitters model.

The show is preoccupied with its admittedly beautiful visuals, Tveit among them. The house, which got its name from the Elvis-obsessed drug dealer who once owned it, has enormous ocean-view windows. The gorgeously decorated bedrooms look like they were set-dressed by the production team from The Hills. Pretty indie-rock tunes score ponderous shots of waves breaking and palm trees swaying along the 101.

The first half of the premiere is littered with these distractions, which have a markedly negative effect on character development. Warren's first interactions with his new housemates are utterly boring, a series of thin, fish-out-of-water clichés. The gloss almost totally overpowers the grit.

It's only when the show breaks free from the confines of the house, for Mike's first clandestine operation, that the agents take on any substance. The initially uncharismatic Briggs (Daniel Sunjata) relates a backstory he once concocted while undercover. The drug dealers he was meeting knew they recognized him from somewhere — his policework had recently been featured in a CNN story — so Briggs improvised a lie about starring in a movie about cops who go undercover as prostitutes. As a last-ditch attempt to convince the increasingly skeptical criminals, he produced his actual badge and pretended it was a prop from the set. I really enjoyed this scene, which reminded me of the commode story in Reservoir Dogs.

From there, it was game on. The camaraderie among the housemates emerged organically once they were actually doing, you know, investigative work. It's exciting: Mike hastily memorizes the personal details of an assumed junkie identity as a colleague delicately applies track marks to his wrist with makeup. In a convincingly tense meeting with Russian mobsters, he earns the respect of his peers by deftly weaving a made-up anecdote about shooting a man on a toilet (again, commode story).

The last ten minutes or so — particularly the reveal that Mike has been assigned to Graceland to investigate Briggs — were solid TV by any standard. If Graceland can stop obsessing over how pretty it is, there should be more where that came from. 

Image via USA

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