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Did Graceland’s Pilot Episode Rock or Roll?

By on June 7, 2013

Pictured: (l-r) Daniel Sunjata as Paul Briggs, Aaron Tveit as Mike Warren -- (Photo by: Jeff Daly/USA Network)

By Catherine Cabanela

However beautiful in its oceanic view and the physicality of its players, Graceland premiered last night with more promise than punch. Granted, expectations were high given the talent that went into this production, especially with showrunner and writer Jeff Easton at the helm. Easton earned his stripes with a 62-and-counting episode run of White Collar on USA Network, and Graceland’s pilot director, Russell Lee Fine is the cinematographer and director of photography behind not only White Collar but such successes as Crash, The Black Donnellys, and The wire.

The premise revolves around a rookie FBI agent (Aaron Tveit) who joins his hero, senior FBI agent Briggs (Daniel Sunjata) and his troupe of undercover others from the FBI, DEA and Customs. Together they live and work from their luxury beachfront home, Graceland, a confiscated property in Southern California. Per usual, intrigue ensues, values and loyalties are brought into question, and invariably, skeletons fly out of closets – at least we are promised they will, eventually.

In this first episode, buttoned-down FBI rookie Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit, Gossip Girl, Les Miserables) finds himself thrown into a simple covert op to bust Felix Arroyo, small-time drug dealer. The sting is put together partly out of revenge for the events of the pilot’s first five minutes in which Warren’s predecessor is shot in a drug deal gone wrong with some of Felix’s pals. Before the episode is half over, Warren’s cover is blown by Felix, and he’s been ensnared in a plot to assassinate one of Graceland’s own at the behest of Vzakonye, a member of the Russian Mafia.

However the quick-witted and scary smart Warren succeeds in his mission better than one might expect. By the end of the day he’s saved a family, eliminated the Russians, and has been accepted by his housemates. He even manages to land himself a new nickname, Levi, after the jeans brand. But wait, there’s a twist. Warren receives a call from Quantico and learns his true assignment at Graceland. His mission going forward is to covertly investigate Briggs. Boom!

Despite its looks, style and promise, the skeletons in the Graceland closet have yet to cough up a sufficiently juicy bone. As they stand, things are a little too clean cut. The mansion is immaculate and everyone seems to be fairly well adjusted. Warren, when playing a drug addict going through withdrawal, is too calm, too self-possessed, while Briggs, who is supposed to have a troubled past and secrets no one knows, appears unperturbed and laid back. What gives, guys? Perhaps all that So-Cal sea air and surfing really does bring out one’s inner zen.

I couldn’t help but wonder how things might have played out if the failed drug bust in the first scene had ended in the death of an agent, or if Briggs had PTSD, if Warren had the stuffing beaten out of him by the Russians or if Felix had been selling his daughter rather than an innocuous truck full of Levi jeans.

Graceland’s second outing ”Guadalaljara Dog” airs Thursday June 13 10/9c on USA. With future episodes delving into the murkier worlds of gunrunners and Nigerian crime bosses with a penchant for torturing those who cross him with a blowtorch, there’s still time for the show to get a little roughened up around the edges and lose some of its starchy (but beautifully) packaged appearance.

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