Remember that scene in Reservoir Dogs, in which a former undercover cop helps a current undercover cop rehearse his cover story, and they come off like a couple of actors running lines before the curtain goes up on a play? Imagine that somebody took that scene and made a drug thriller out of it, one set on a sunny beach with huge, rolling waves, and stocked with ridiculously gorgeous actors whose hair and clothes are so perfect that you’d think that everybody who graduated from FBI school was given a makeup artist, hairstylist, and personal shopper along with their gun, badge, and diploma. That’s Graceland (Thursdays, 10 p.m.), a new USA drama about federal agents going undercover to bust criminals in Southern California.
These agents, who are led by the enigmatic Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata), live in the titular location, a huge beach house seized from an Elvis-obsessed kingpin. They use this place as a staging area for their cases. When they aren’t working, they argue about who has to do chores and who drank whose orange juice, as if starring in a nonexistent reality series that could be titled The Real World: Strapped.
The idea of gun-toting federales sharing a luxury beach house sounds ludicrous, but supposedly the show is based (loosely, I suspect) on the true stories of agents who operated out of just such a house. At first, Graceland seems pleasingly shallow, a diversion that’s happy to linger on a sexy female agent soaping her tastefully cropped body in a shower, or a bunch of hunky male agents surfing, their body suits clinging to their perfectly sculpted torsos, legs, and arms. It’s the kind of show that leads up to a drug bust with a dreamy montage of an agent riding in the passenger seat of a car at night, the reflections of streetlights flattened out into beautiful, blurry circles that seem to swarm around him like fireflies. (Shades of Miami Vice, both versions.) But Graceland isn’t just a promotional reel for beautiful people, camerawork, and beachfront property. It has ideas, and while they aren’t new, they’re articulated with style and a smidgen of wit.
Aaron Tviet plays Mike Warren, a green young recruit who requested assignment in Washington, D.C. but was suddenly and mysteriously assigned to Briggs’s unit. There are other agents — handsome guys, including Manny Montana and Brandon J. McLaren, and a couple of knockout women, including Vanessa Ferlito. Although their characters are amusing-if-familiar types, their personalities take a backseat to the luxurious scenery and a laid-back, stoned-but-alert vibe that suggests that series creator Jeff Eastin loved Point Break unironically and doesn’t care who knows. (Briggs is the show’s Bodhi.)
Graceland doesn’t strike me as a series that will reward close scrutiny, and I am not convinced it’s knocking itself out to be one. USA sent out the pilot and the fourth and fifth episodes, and I didn’t feel deprived for not having seen episodes two or three. At the same time, though, this is not an entirely trivial series. It’s the kind of work that I like to classify as “deep shallow,” in that it deals in familiar tropes and simple themes but articulates them in a clever, stylish way. The central notion here is that undercover police work is like acting. Of course that has a longer beard than Al Pacino in 1973’s Serpico, but Graceland works it with more commitment than you might expect.
Briggs, who runs most of the operations, is like an actor turned director running a heavily armed theater company that’s funded by a patron (the federal government) who believes in their mission but would prefer they stick to classic texts and not improvise so much. The agents create alter egos as actors or playwrights might create characters, thinking about their backstories, adding phony corroborating documents to FBI computer files, and adding visual/physical flourishes, such as fake track marks and scars created with makeup, to sell the lies.
The opening sequence pivots on a bit of stagecraft-in-the-street that fails and gets an agent shot. Subsequent scenes and episodes continue in this vein. When Briggs makes Warren repeat the details of one of his cover stories until he’s memorized it, the scene feels like a moment in a backstage drama in which a theatrical guru helps a nervous young actor run his lines. The fifth episode includes a scene in which the hero thinks he’s stumbled upon two characters shooting up heroin, then realizes they’re shooting with real needles filled with a harmless fake heroin solution designed to make undercover deceptions more credible. “I sold that euphoria,” one agent says. The other disagrees: “A little more o-mouth would sell the euphoria, babe.”
This show sells the o-mouth. It’s eye candy and brain candy.