A successful undercover cop show, like a successful undercover police operation, requires patience. You need time to establish your characters, develop a relationship with their target, and plausibly get in deep enough for the real action to take place.
Most undercover cop shows – like most of the TV business in general – don’t have that patience. They want instant gratification, and throw their heroes into new identities and operations with such speed that it’s hard to believe in or care about anything that’s happening. Every now and then you get a gem like “Wiseguy” (the ’80s classic featuring lengthy guest arcs built around villains played by the likes of Ray Sharkey, Jerry Lewis and a young Kevin Spacey) or “Sleeper Cell” (the great but short-lived Showtime drama about an FBI agent infiltration an extremist Muslim terrorist group), but more often you get completely forgettable dramas like “Prince Street” or “The Handler” or “Dark Blue,” where the cops tended to slip in and out of assignments so quickly as to not be worth the bother.
“Graceland,” the new USA drama debuting tomorrow night at 10, is attempting to split the difference – just as it’s trying to both embrace and expand upon the familiar USA “blue skies” formula.
The series revolves around a SoCal beach house(*) that a group of federal agencies (including the FBI, DEA and Customs) use as a base of operations for their undercover operatives. They’re an attractive bunch – led by Daniel Sunjata’s undercover legend Paul Briggs, and joined by FBI rookie Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit) – who live together, help each other out on investigations (and in supporting each other’s cover identities), and also find plenty of time to surf, play football in the sand and complain about the house chore wheel.
(*) The show’s title comes from the house’s previous owner, an Elvis-loving drug dealer. Other than that, the show evokes nothing of either the King or the Paul Simon song.
A few years back, a show like “Graceland” on USA would have been completely disposable: Mike, Paul and the other housemates slipping in and out of character in the space of an episode, closing forgettable cases with enough time remaining to catch a few waves under a gorgeous setting sun. But the network’s formula has evolved in the last few years, thanks in part to the work “Graceland” creator Jeff Eastin has done with “White Collar.” Longer story arcs are now acceptable – “Burn Notice,” beginning its final season tomorrow night at 9, has become almost totally serialized of late – as long as there’s some sort of problem to be solved in the space of an hour.
So “Graceland” mixes things up: sometimes, Mike and friends work assignments that end practically as soon as they’ve begun, while at other times, they go into deep cover roles. Mike spends several episodes getting close to a drug lord played by Gbenga Akinnagbe, Chris Partlow from “The Wire,” and there’s also a secret reason for his assignment to the house that should take a long time – if not the life of the series – to resolve.
Unsurprisingly, the serialized material is stronger, especially when it involves Paul acting as coach and safety net for his housemates. This is an excellent role for Sunjata (light years better than his stint as a dramaturg on “Smash”), and he provides many shadings to Paul both when he’s playing himself and when he’s working under an assumed identity. Also strong: Vanessa Ferlito as a DEA agent who gets too close to one of her informants, and Manny Montana in a lighter role as the house’s jack of all trades. (The other two housemates, played by Brandon Jay McLaren and Serinda Swan, don’t get as much to do in the three episodes I’ve seen, and are totally absent from some episodes, though the creative team makes sure to eventually put Swan in a bikini.)
The wild card is Tveit, the young Broadway veteran who played Enjolras in the “Les Miserables” movie last year. He’s believable as a golden boy rookie who would land such a plum assignment, and he has the level of gravity needed to be at the center of the series’ main arc, but he’s less convincing in his undercover guises than several of his co-stars.
Then again, depending on where Eastin takes “Graceland,” Tveit may not matter that much. For all the praise heaped on “Wiseguy,” little of it goes to star Ken Wahl, who was mainly there to be impressed by the guest villains. If Eastin and USA are serious about pushing in a more serialized direction, then the other feds and their targets may be enough for the show to work.
Based on the three episodes I’ve seen, there’s a lot of potential here, and an interesting blend of self-contained and long-form storytelling. With “Burn Notice” ending (and with me way too far behind on “Suits” or “White Collar” to easily catch up), I’m in the market for a new USA show. This could be it, if it wants to be serious and not just kill time until everyone can grab their boards and hit the beach.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org