Jun 6, 2013

Graceland: "Pilot"

By Josh Oakley


[Note: For those curious about the show, the body of this review has no real spoilers, with the episode's big twist discussed below, and clearly marked}

Graceland has been touted as gritty, a slight exaggeration. Perhaps the description fits better when compared to the other shows it shares the USA channel with. The opening scene provides a fairly perfect sampling of what level of darkness can be expected here. In Virginia, a group of undercover cops graduates, listening to a speech warning them of the troubles that await them in the future. This audio is played over a scene, on the other side of the country, where a cop who has been at the game for years finds himself in such a predicament. The contrast, between warning with slight uplift and reality shattered by gunshots is well done. But the heroin readied in California is never used, and the shot cop doesn’t die. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly proves that we’re still on USA. This is neither Psych nor Breaking Bad, but the pilot for Graceland shows that the middle ground can yield excellent results.

One of those graduating FBI agents is Mike Warren, plated by Aaron Tveit (who most recently played Enjolras in last year’s Les Miserables adaptation). He is quickly assigned to the same Southern California position that the maimed officer in the opening recently vacated. Warren moves into the titular house, occupied by five other agents from the FBI, Customs and the DEA. The pilot spends much of its time introducing Warren, and thus, the audience, to his housemates. The most important for this episode are Paul Briggs, the father figure of the house, Charlie DeMarco, the one kindest to Warren from the outset, and Johnny Tuturro, the jokester of the group. There’s also D.J., who seems mean at first but isn’t all that bad, and Paige Arkin, who is given little detail beyond her love for the cop shot in the opening scene.

Most of the action for the episode is pushed to the back end, with only a slight bust, going slightly wrong, to fill the episode’s middle. The climax of the episode, featuring Warren’s first undercover job, is expertly directed. When we are with Warren, tension is built through fear of what may happen to him. When time is spent with the other officers listening in, that fear stems from knowing that these people can’t do anything immediately if things turn to shit. Cutting between the two locations provides a realistic sensation of terror that is strong enough to provide catharsis with its twist ending, but not so towering as to hamper any further building of stakes in the future.

And those stakes do grow with an episode ending twist that gives us the show’s major arc. It’s the perfect sort of reveal in that it makes complete sense with what we’ve seen thus far, but isn’t immediately obvious to the viewer (or at least to this viewer). I’ll discuss that more in the Spoiler section below, because I want to spend the rest of the time here discussing what happens when the episode isn’t building tension and releasing it with gunfire (which it does strikingly well).

The most important scene in the episode seems innocuous. Briggs and Johnny take Warren out to learn to surf, and it’s a montage of Warren trying and failing, the others laughing, and it’s all good fun. Right before they begin riding the waves, though, Briggs clarifies why surfing is more than just an indicator that the show is set in California. He goes on about how surfing connects the rider to the world around them. This is important, especially for an undercover cop, and especially for the undercover cop harboring some big secret. Briggs can only fully connect to himself in a true sense in the ocean, on a surfboard. It sounds a little hokey, but the idea is fairly stirring. These officers, constantly hiding their identity from almost everyone, need a place to embrace their own nature and beings. As Briggs more bluntly puts it in the final scene of the episode, Warren can no longer tell the truth to a girl he likes, his parents, or anyone really. As the final twist proves, “anyone” extends to his housemates. Warren is trapped within a bubble of deception, not merely in the sense that he has secrets but that his connections to those around will always be hindered by said lies. It’s not about what he knows; it’s about how that knowledge affects his relationships with others.

Another important extension of this theme: when Warren pulls a gun on Charlie (unaware of course, as she’s in full meth head make-up), Johnny tells him “no guns downstairs”. This comes a few minutes after Warren is also told that no non-cops, not even attractive Californian women, can be brought upstairs. Above, they are cops. Below, they are people. But which of these identities is authentic? Which of the three defines these people: who they are as a cop, who they are when undercover, or who they are when drinking with their buddies. It’s fairly common territory for undercover agent shows or movies to use, but Graceland puts the thematic material to great effect here. It occasionally blurts out what it’s saying. But with the “no guns downstairs, no ladies upstairs” rule, the show proves that it can layer this idea in its subtext. Graceland appears to be USA attempting to prove it can be a little darker, using a basic plot that’s been done everyone from Serpico to 21 Jump Street. But if you pay attention you just may discover that lurking beneath its exterior is a fairly great pilot with real potential. This may be the kind of show where a character blatantly says, “your lies are your life”. But it also seems to be the kind of show that means it in a potentially powerful way.

Grade: B+

Miscellaneous:
  • I didn’t have room for it up there, but all of the performances here are fairly outstanding, especially in the way that they give these characters and the home of Graceland a real, lived-in history. Tveit and Daniel Sunjata (who plays Briggs) are given the most to do in this episode, but the rest of the cast seems to be laying some great groundwork for future character development.
  • “No wires, not since The Wire.”

SPOILERS AHEAD
  • I mainly want to reiterate here how excellent and exhilarating the final twist, that Warren is in California to investigate Briggs, is. It’s not a novel plot by any means, but with the characters set up as they are it could really pay off in big ways. It also nicely continues the theme of secrets without shoving it down our throats. Briggs obviously has some shit in his past, and unlike most shows that would make that character gloomy and distant, I’m excited to see what Graceland does with turning the “dad” of the group into its potential villain (assuming the investigation has to do with his willingness to shoot a target who hasn’t even shown his weapon).
  • Question for anyone who may be out there: Do you think the boss at the house knows anything about this? My guess is no, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he does. If nothing else the show will need to give Warren someone he can confide in so the entire plot isn’t in his head until it explodes.

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