‘Graceland’ Pilot Recap: “Your Lies Are Your Life”

This is the story of six strangers picked to live in a house, work together and bust criminals, to find out what happens when undercover law enforcement officers stop being polite and start getting real. (Sadly, this show has nothing to do with Elvis, or Paul Simon.)

Last week, the USA Network debuted its new summer series ‘Graceland’, which despite its blatant parallels to MTV’s ‘The Real World’ and excessive use of interstitial montages between scenes, is not a Reality show. In fact, it’s a scripted crime drama that rather bizarrely attempts to fuse ‘The Real World’ with ’21 Jump Street’ and, of all things, the classic Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze cheesefest ‘Point Break’. Why anyone would want to do this, much less play the whole thing seriously, is anyone’s guess.

The show is about a joint task force of undercover FBI, DEA and U.S. Customs officers who live together in a swanky southern California beach house, called “Graceland” because the former owner it was confiscated from (a drug kingpin) was a big Elvis fan. Every one of them is young and almost impossibly attractive, because this is a TV show and that’s what people want to watch. After a DEA agent named Donnie who was everbody’s best friend gets shot during a drug bust gone sour, he’s replaced by fresh-faced FBI cadet Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit from ‘Gossip Girl’), straight out of the Academy and totally unqualified for the job. The newbie doesn’t even speak Spanish, which is kind of a requirement. For most of the ‘Pilot’ episode, the other guys and gals in the unit bust Mike’s chops as he tries to learn the ropes.

Their leader is Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata from ‘Rescue Me’), once a legendary FBI go-getter whose years undercover have mellowed him into an easy-going Zen philosopher. He insists that, to understand the job, Mike must first learn to surf. Yup, he’s obviously seen ‘Point Break’. A lot of times, I’d guess.

Also notable in the cast is Vanessa Ferlito from Tarantino’s ‘Death Proof’, whose sole purpose on the show appears to be to flirt with Mike. Jay Karnes from ‘The Shield’ calls the shots as their supervisor from headquarters.

For his first case, Mike has to pretend to be the junkie brother-in-law to a drug dealer who’s in trouble with the Russian mob. After mobsters kidnap the guy’s wife and family, they want the brother-in-law to pay his debt by killing somebody for them. That somebody turns out to be Donnie, the agent Mike had replaced. Mike fakes the assassination, and in short order the mobsters are taken down and the family rescued. In the process of this, Briggs saves Mike’s life by shooting one of the Russians even though he isn’t sure the man has a gun. (He did, but Briggs shot before he could see it.) Mike and Briggs then share a lie to pass this off as a routine justified shooting.

In a final twist, Mike gets a call from a superior in the FBI who informs him that his real purpose in being assigned to this unit is to investigate Briggs, the very man who just saved his life. Oh noes! Where will Mike’s loyalties lie?

‘Graceland’ isn’t necessarily awful, but it’s pretty generic and unconvincing. I suppose it might be considered “gritty” by USA Network standards, but it looks rather silly and lightweight compared to the likes of, say, ‘The Shield’ or ‘Sons of Anarchy’, two more series that it clearly draws inspiration from. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for finding this more entertaining than I did, but the first episode didn’t do much for me.

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