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This Week in Black Television: Daniel Sunjata and Brandon Jay McLaren in ‘Graceland’ (A Review)

This Week in Black Television: Daniel Sunjata and Brandon Jay McLaren in 'Graceland' (A Review)

After a brief hiatus This Week in Black Television returns
with a review of GRACELAND, the new
series from White Collar creator Jeff
Eastin that stars Daniel Sunjata and premieres tonight at 10pm EST on the USA

The USA Network is widely known for its “blue sky” shows,
original regular series that despite their quirky and flawed characters whose,
according to Original Programming President Jeff Wachtel back in 2010, “weaknesses was also their strengths,”(see USA’s “Characters Welcome” marketing) generally take place in cities where they sky is often sunny and
bright and the settings allow the characters (and the viewer) to be filled with
hopefulness, despite their un-sunny dispositions.  They are often naturally somewhat light-hearted as
well.  Shows covered previously in
this column like Psych, Burn Notice, and Suits set in Santa Barbara, Miami and New York City, respectively,
fit this bill to a tee – and the marketing and series often work. Um, except
last summer’s Common Law with Michael
Ealy (set in New Orleans).

That said, Graceland,
with its obvious Southern California surfer-imbued, hazy skyline, palm trees
promoted advertising looked to be pretty-light hearted and jokey. But that is
so not the case.   The basic
premise of the show is that various top agents from the FBI, DEA, and Customs
live and work out of a seized Southern California beachfront property seized
years ago by the US government in a raid from a hardcore Elvis fan.  This house is unofficially known as “Graceland” and as usual for television shows is as unrealistically spacious
and beautiful inside as it is out. 
The house is also as full of good and bad memories as it is deep secrets
held by its current and former occupants. 

We are guided through this new world by Mike Warren, a
bright-eyed by the book graduate from the FBI academy that graduated from the
top of his class and is assigned to Graceland by agent Sam Campbell (Courtney
B. Vanc
e), who eloquently tells the new class on graduation day, “Whatever you
think success means, you’ve got it all wrong.”   Played
confidently by newcomer Aaron Tveit, trainee Mike Warren is immediately thrust
into this new lifestyle and is excited to work with the team leader agent Paul
Briggs, who he thinks based on FBI records is a sterling by-the-books agent. He
is sterling, and the best there is at what he does, but Briggs, played Daniel
(Rescue Me, The Devil Wears Prada) in his first-ever
leading role, anchors both the team and this show with a scruffy yet effective
devil-may-care attitude.  Briggs
has seen some dark stuff and his attitude and need for surfing (told you it was
‘blue skies’) reflects that. 

We are introduced to other members of the team through their
work.  Customs agent Dale Jakes,
played by This Week in Black Television fav Brandon Jay McLaren, is investigating illegal bird
smuggling done through some rastas, and McLaren humorously tries his best at a
Jamaican accent while doing so.  Last
seen in The Killing and Falling Skies, lets hope his stoic yet
likeable character does not meet the gruesome fate his last two shows gave
him.  Likeable NY’er Charlie
DeMarco (Vanessa Ferlito – The Sopranos,
), funnyman Joe ‘Johnny’ Turturro (Manny Montana, The Chicago Code), and hardcore angry
girl Paige Arkin (Serinda Swan, Breakout
) round out the crew. 
From the intros of most of the characters, and their dispositions, it is
clear that they, just like Briggs, have led some dark lives as well. 

Halfway into the pilot Johnny and Briggs show Mike how to
surf and introduce him to the SoCal lifestyle, making this critic itch for some
action beyond a drug deal that Arkin and her former partner screwed up in the
opening. But that quickly changes as Mike is put on his first case, which soon
spirals into an intense situation in which we see how well the other agents
shine under pressure, how sharp of an agent Mike will be, and why Briggs is not
only a top agent, but also mired in grey and definitely not the dude Mike
thinks he is.  “Your lies are your
life,” Briggs tells his young padawan Mike, and a phone call late into the
pilot reveals how true for Mike that will be.  As was told to him at the FBI graduation, success indeed is
not what you think it will mean. 

Graceland is a
stylish show that fits tightly into the USA Networks dynamic of shows, much
better than the cancelled Common Law
did last year. But it is also a lot darker in tone than the rest, with heavy
characters and situations that will hopefully remain as gripping as they did in
the pilot.  I get what the writers
are trying to do with Sunjata, but he is not initially as likeable of a jerk as
Gabriel Macht’s Harvey Specter on Suits and is much more in line with Mary McCormack’s Mary
Shannon on In Plain Sight.  Still, this is more of a bromance show
and Sunjata does have the chops to build Briggs into a solid character while
both teaching and learning from his new trainee. 

Graceland will remain on Thursdays at 10pm and future
episodes will feature Gbenga Akinnagbe as a Nigerian crime boss as reported previously
on S&A. 

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