Episode 1: Pilot
By: Carlos Uribe
Graceland is a show about undercover federal agents living in the same house in Southern California.
Television is filled with cop shows. It's the most prominent genre currently on the air because they're easy to make and people watch them. This doesn't mean that every cop show that makes it to air is going to make it. It needs to get at least one thing right: it needs to make people want to see the specific characters in the show solve crimes. People have a lot options to chose from so the chemistry between the actors and the strength of the lead detectives is crucial in order to get people to come back for future episodes. A cop show needs a strong team to keep it's audience but it also needs a hook to get people to check it out. The reason why people check out Graceland over a hundred other cop shows. The aspect that separates the show from the pack without being so different that it's no longer a recognizable part of the genre. The hook of Graceland is that federal agents are living undercover in the same house. They come from three different agencies (FBI, DEA, and Customs) that allows the show a large variety of potential crimes to investigate. The characters could go undercover to infiltrate drug and smuggling rings, cults, and other groups. Forcing them to live together basically means that the characters will not only be close but frequently run into conflict with each other because that's what happens when people spend a lot of time together. The house also acts as a unique base of operations-which is different from just another police headquarters. The whole undercover aspect promises that these characters will be taking on roles, which can be entertaining on it's own right. In other words: Graceland has a pretty great premise that could take it a lot of places on the weekly cases while providing a lot of room to develop conflicts in the long-run. Graceland has the potential to be a fun, summer series on USA but it does have a lot of issues to sort out first. The team needs some fleshing out, the pacing needs to be quickened, and the plot needs to be tightened. These are all issues that can be solved as Graceland goes forward.
The most frustrating part of the Graceland pilot is that it leaves it's best part until literally the very end. The series had begun with new recruit, Mike Warren, being transferred over to Graceland after a cop had been shot and placed in witness protection. The pilot uses Mike as every show likes to use new characters: as a way to introduce the viewers into the show's universe. It's an effective technique that works well for Graceland. There are a lot of scenes used to set up relationships and characters before we finally get into the weekly case. It's fun to see how the weekly case develops even as it goes south towards the end. The pilot runs a little bit long to the point where it drags out a bit. I believe future episodes should be the normal episode length (45 minutes) which should help this series out with pacing because there were a lot of moments where I had no idea if Graceland was even going to have a plot beyond Mike meeting everyone. The time wasn't necessarily misused as future episodes should benefit from this move but it does mean that a lot of the pilot feels like it's stalling when you're actually watching it. The weekly case wasn't completely original (although it did have a few surprises) but it was entertaining and I could see how future episodes of Graceland are going to play out. It's at the end, when the characters are celebrating their victory over the case, that the best part comes. Mike gets a call and learns the real reason he's been sent to Graceland. He's undercover to investigate the leading agent, Briggs. Sending an undercover cop to a house full of undercover cops to investigate their lead agent? Now that's room for a lot of promising material and it's certain to create a lot of tension and internal conflict. Now that is interesting and possibly the first time where I went from being merely entertained to actually being interested in what was going to happen. And then the episode ended. I guess it makes sense to leave this at the end as it allows us to get to know Briggs before we have any real reason to suspect him but leaving it to the end basically means I wasn't as invested as I would have been. Oh well, at least I'll be checking out the second episode.
The hook for Graceland is strong but the plot itself is mixed. The pacing is off, the narrative seems to be non-existent at points, and the weekly case was serviceable but nothing noteworthy. Of course, the real strength in a cop show is whether we want to see this team again. Here's where a lot of the “wasted” time actually ends up having a use because the show spends a lot of time introducing us to these characters. In many ways, Graceland is just as much a hang-out show as it is a cop show. The good news is that it's actually fun to spend time with this team. It helps that it has two strong protagonists. Mike is the rare new guy that is both intelligent but in-over-his head at the same time. He's competent but has the potential to really mess things up. It's very rare to balance the two aspects (newness with competency) so it's great that the series managed to accomplish this. The character he's supposed to investigate, Briggs, is a strong one as well. He had graduated with record test scores, was a great by-the-numbers cop, before something happened and he took a break. When he came back, it was with a laissez-faire attitude where he's willing to interact with the team under him but not to let them get close. His guarded nature is sure to be an obstacle as Mike is going to have to try his best to get close to him. He might not be the most original character but he's written well in Graceland and he has a lot of promise due to the secrets he does hold. Graceland gets it's two main characters right which makes it easy to want to come back to this show. The two are not only strong characters on their own rights but the promise of conflict between the two of them is part of the reason the twist at the end is so intriguing.
The rest of the team aren't so shabby. The most notable one is Johnny, the fun-loving character that is tasked with showing Mike around. He's a good character in the sense that he provides a lot of laughs. As comic relief, he works. As a cop, he works. If the series wants him to be dramatic beyond his job then the writers are going to have to flesh him out a bit. The other male cop is DJ, who is a customs agent that is appropriately territorial with his belongings. He's not that fleshed out but I am interested in getting to know him more. It's not that often we get an actual customs agent on television so I'm hoping that we get to spend a little time with his investigations beyond just a scene now and then. As for the females, the only reason I can separate them is because of how they treat Mike. Charlie is okay with him being a member of the house while Lauren isn't because he's replacing her old partner. The two characters are okay but they're not as interesting as the guys. Charlie basically just flirts with him while Lauren is just seeking revenge and trying to keep up the hope that her old partner can come back to work with her. It would be nice to get to know who they are beyond just respectively trying to flirt with Mike or getting back at the Russians.
The pilot of Graceland is a strong one in setting up characters, their relationships, and the premise of the show. The cliff-hanger at the end makes a lot of what we just saw infinitely more interesting and maybe even compelling. The show just needs work on pacing the episodes and on having a tight narrative. The show might have set up it's team but it still needs to flesh out the members as a lot of them only have their basic character templates up. Overall, Graceland is a fun time to spend your time and the pilot gives you a reason to come back for the second episode. Which is a pretty successful pilot in my opinion.
Apparently Graceland is based on real events.