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‘Graves’ Review: Nick Nolte Tries to Save the Republican Party in a Political Comedy with Presidential Potential

EPIX's first original comedy series chronicles the last likable Republican president, and how even he's turning his back on the GOP.

Graves Season 1 Nick Nolte

Lewis Jacobs/EPIX/Lionsgate

Whether you’re with her or want to make America great again, “Graves” is the timely political comedy you didn’t know you needed to see. For one, it’s on EPIX, a network new to the scripted original series game, meaning you might not know where to find it. But more to the point, the series’ basic premise might make you suspect the show has a liberal agenda hiding behind faux-conservatism; a show made to lure in Republican voters only to convince them they’re wrong.

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But that’s not the case — so far. While “Graves” may not be the barnburner debut series of, say, a “House of Cards,” it’s a big step up from Amazon’s “Alpha House.” Plus, through three episodes, the well-performed, warmly funny tale is also fair to both sides of the aisle.

And it’s got some big ideas to boot.

“Graves” tracks the life of retired President Richard Graves (Nick Nolte), the last popular Republican to sit in the Oval Office. Despite a genuine distaste for hollow photo ops, Graves is still being ushered from political stop to political stop in order to keep the conservative base stimulated. His politically active wife Maggie (Sela Ward), still very well-liked by the family party, controls his schedule, but their relationship is pure. The two speak frankly to each other, clearly one love another and Richard genuinely appreciates Maggie — as he should, considering she’s the one getting things done after the family left the White House.

Graves Season 1 Nick Nolte

But then, during a limo ride with Rudy Giuliani (the ex-mayor of New York plays himself) and two (fictional) GOP officials, Graves gets a wake-up call. With the flip of his middle finger and an exclamation that he’s “not dead yet,” Graves drives home and starts digging through his legacy to understand why he feels so damn guilty. In a scene made emotionally effective by Nolte’s subdued reactions to clicking through Google, the former president comes to accept the pit he’s dug for the country and begins a crusade to correct his mistakes.

Now, anyone can see how these tracks could easily take a turn away from Graves’ (and his party’s) core conservative values, toward a left-wing writer’s idea of right and wrong. But so far, the series is sticking to issues just about everyone can get behind. Health care, veterans and immigration are presented in a human context, and Graves is positioned as a party savior rather than a secret liberal. He’s steering the GOP back toward sanity and away from tea partiers and Trump enthusiasts. He’s the president the party wishes it could run in the 2016 election; one who speaks truth to power, but does so using facts and rationale instead of lewd comments and incisive rhetoric. He’s the spitting image of Ronald Reagan, but without the hidden dementia.

Yet equally important to how “Graves” applies to the GOP right now is how the series steps back from immediate politics to examine broader questions. While not emphasized in the series, its reworked historical timeline may turn out to be its catalyst for next-level TV. At the very least, how “Graves” toys with history creates an intriguing discussion when paired with the show’s premise.

Graves Season 1 Sela Ward Skylar Astin

The new EPIX comedy is based in reality — with past presidents and real wars — and in its own fictional universe; a universe in which Bill Clinton never become president. Instead, George H.W. Bush was succeeded by Richard Graves, and while it’s not clear if Graves ran against the sitting president in 1992 or if Bush won a second term and then moved out of the way, we do know one thing: The years following Graves’ exit weren’t good to him.

It’s here, in this fuzzy chronology, that Josh Michael Stern’s first series finds relevance beyond its endearing performances and light comedy (which, obviously, should not be discounted). “Graves” is the story of a man who recognizes the horrible mistakes he’s made in the past and tries to correct them in the present; mistakes he takes personal responsibility for and still recognizes as a consequence of the American political system. Freed from the need to be reelected, he can simply do what’s right.

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Whether or not real-world politicians can ever follow such simple-minded advice — especially when Americans fundamentally disagree on “what’s right” when it comes to certain issues — isn’t exactly the point. What matters about Graves is that he’s not apologizing for his beliefs. He’s apologizing for his choices. He’s not ranting against his party. He’s ranting against himself. He just wants to do good, even when that means confronting wrong decisions he once thought were right.

Can a former president do more good than one in office? What would a political system look like if politicians admitted their mistakes? What will our country look like if we make the wrong decision in November? How “Graves” answers these questions will likely determine its legacy, but the fact that it’s trying already says quite a bit.

Grade: B+

“Graves” premieres Sunday, October 16 at 10 p.m. ET on EPIX. Watch the first two episodes online at EPIX.com.

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