Graceland is USA's latest original series, but it feels familiar in more ways than one. For one, it's from Jeff Eastin, the creator of the network's veteran show White Collar, and boasts some of the same creative team members.
Its premise is reminiscent of the 2005 TNT drama Wanted, too. Like Graceland, that series also centered on officers from various government agencies working on the same team, although they didn't share a house. With this show, the fine print sent out with the DVD mailer says it was "inspired by an actual beachfront property seized by the U.S. government in 1992."
Graceland is also populated by familiar but not-too-familiar faces that any TV junkie will recognize. The cast is led by Daniel Sunjata (Rescue Me) and includes Manny Montana (The Chicago Code), Brandon Jay McLaren (Power Rangers: SPD, The Killing), Serinda Swan (Breakout Kings) and Vanessa Ferlito (CSI: NY). Jay Karnes (The Shield, Burn Notice) has a recurring role, Scottie Thompson (NCIS, Brotherhood) guests in the pilot (possibly a spot of re-casting, because she's there and Swan isn't), and Courtney B. Vance (FlashForward, Law & Order: Criminal Intent) also shows up. The main protagonist is played by Aaron Tveit, who has a shorter TV resume than his colleagues but was in the most recent film adaptation of Les Miserables last Christmas.
What's the end result of mixing together all these ingredients? A project that fits the general vibe of a summer series - entertaining, a little bit flashy, with the ongoing mystery that all USA shows seem to require - but that isn't quite what you'd expect when looking at the parts.
If you're tuning into Graceland expecting something similar to White Collar, you'll be disappointed. It has none of the breezy, witty fun of that series, and there's no character here as charismatic or intriguing as Neal Caffrey. This is a darker series, one that wants to be grittier, with shots of Southern California beaches giving way to those of neighborhoods you wouldn't want to be in at night.
Underneath that, though, this is another cop show. Even conceding the point that characters on TV take more than an episode to properly develop, there's nothing about any of Graceland's characters that really leaves you desperate to know more. There are bits where you might arch an eyebrow - like when that ongoing mystery is introduced, predictably, in the last scene of the first episode - but you won't be clamoring to find out what makes them tick. The cast does their job, with the best work coming from Sunjata, Tveit and Karnes (shame he's not a regular!), but they can only do so much with roles that still feel like types, rather than people.
What that comes down to is the writing: it's efficient but it lacks soul. It's as if you can feel the writers ticking all the boxes they want to - and some that they have to - cover. There's the history of Graceland, a handful of "house rules" for the place, and some basic biographical facts about each of the characters (mostly things you'd find in a personnel file). Here's the scene where everyone banters for awhile. Here are a handful of quips (because all 'cool' characters on TV have at least a one-liner or two). Here's the plot twist that you'll see coming if you paid attention to the beginning of the episode. Here's the scene that's supposed to shock you. And then here's the end-of-episode bomb drop, which really isn't one if you were watching closely, or are aware of the fact that almost every USA show has some sort of mythology attached to it.
This isn't a bad series. It just isn't a great one. It's too easy to see what the show wants to be, which in turn makes it easier to notice when it falls short. Eastin and his team have proven with White Collar that they can make a show which sticks with audiences, so it's fair to say that they could build on this profoundly average start. Yet looking at Graceland, it makes us more aware of how White Collar has such great leads in Tim DeKay and Matt Bomer, and how that show thrives on their chemistry. That's not the kind of thing you can replicate. Even Wanted, which only lasted for one season on TNT, had great rapport between a cast that included Gary Cole, Lee Tergesen and Ryan Hurst. So what's Graceland's spark going to be? Is there one? Only time will tell.
Graceland will entertain the folks who are looking for a nice escape over the summer, or who want to watch a handful of TV mainstays take center stage. Yet is it the show its pedigree and all the advertising made us want it to be? Not yet, anyway.
Graceland premieres tonight at 10 PM ET/PT on USA. To commemorate the show's arrival, I have some show-branded merch to give away. You can enter my Graceland contest by visiting my website.