The moment has arrived! After a tantalizing campaign launched by the USA Network, the premiere of Graceland finally aired last night. As a pilot episode it spent about half its time establishing the characters and the other half creating context and plot. My first impression is that Graceland is a very detail-oriented show, with hints and foreshadows being consistently dropped for later reference. If you’re the kind of viewer who tends to be doing other things while watching television, you’re going to need to change your habits a bit, if you hope to catch all the big moments.
So let’s see who we have living at Graceland:
FBI Agent Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit) – Mike is a fresh graduate and brand new agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Up until the last minute he thought was being given as assignment in D.C., but his orders got changed and instead he’s heading to Southern California. His placement is in a house called “Graceland” – seized from a druglord with an affinity for Elvis – where undercover FBI, DEA and Customs agents all live under one roof. He is eager to please and excited to be under the tutelage of Agent Paul Briggs, whose reputation as an extraordinary agent precedes him. Mike is shaky at first, and is no doubt thrown off by his less-than-warm reception from his new roommates, but as the hour progresses, so does Mike. By the end of the episode, we it is clear just how clever he can be.
FBI Agent Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata) – Briggs is charged with being Mike’s training officer. From what we can tell, he is a celebrated agent with a love for surfing, drinking, and sleeping. Mike is surprised and disappointed to learn that his idol is such a mess, and can’t understand how the guy in front of him and the Paul Briggs he’s heard so much about are the same. We learn that Briggs was once more of the man that Mike had in mind – button down shirt, respectable, professional agent – until something went down that caused him take a leave of absence. When he returned he was “zen-ed out” and completely different. Briggs doesn’t talk about the incident and has never disclosed the details. Briggs is a bit suspicious of Mike’s placement at Graceland since his file states that he has top priority and his first choice was DC. Perhaps the most telling thing about Briggs is the advice he gave to Mike at the end of the Pilot — “your lies are your life.” Lying is a big part of success in this world, and it’s clear to me that it can get very confusing very quickly and one can easily lose track of what – and who- is real.
DEA Agent Donnie Banks (Clayton Crawford) – Graceland opens with Donnie getting shot after he botches a heroin deal with Russian suppliers. He has been put up in a safe house, leaving his room at Graceland open. Mike is sent there to fill the vacant room, but none of the other housemates are happy with this arrangement. Donnie’s not dead, after all. [It should be noted that Clayton Crawford does not appear in any of the promotional material for the show, so there is reason to believe he is not going to return to Graceland]
DEA Agent Lauren Kincaid (Scottie Thompson) – Lauren is Donnie’s partner and is the most unhappy about Mike coming in and taking his place. She makes it very clear that Mike should not get comfortable, as Donnie will be returning shortly. Lauren is committed to nailing the men who shot Donnie and, after listening to Briggs’ messages, convinces him to reestablish a relationship with an old connection in order to get closer to the perpetrators.
FBI Agent Charlie Demarco (Vanessa Ferlito) – Charlie’s the one person in the house who didn’t give Mike a hard time when he arrived. She’s currently working undercover as a homeless drug addict and met Mike when she returned to the house dressed as her alias. He pulled a gun on her, only to have her pull one back on him and reprimand him about having a gun downstairs. Charlie seems to pop up right at the moments when Mike could use a friend, and provides him with kindness, which he has been sorely lacking. It is Charlie who informs him of Briggs’ history and it is Charlie who gives him Donnie’s spare key to the house (“if you tell Lauren, I will shoot you.”). There’s immediate chemistry between Mike and Charlie, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out and how it factors in to all the issues of trust that are clearly going to be a focal point of the show.
FBI Agent Joe “Johnny” Turturro (Manny Montana) – Johnny is the fun jokester of the house. Charged with the responsibility of picking Mike up from the airport, Johnny spends the episode giving him a hard time and getting him into trouble with the other housemates. It’s all very friendly and it’s clear that Johnny is a good guy who gets a kick out of messing with the new guy. Johnny may be my favorite character on Graceland so far. He is quirky and charming and seems like the kind of guy who’s always got your back.
Customs Agent Dale Jakes (Brandon Jay McLaren) – One of the most enjoyable moments of the Graceland pilot was watching Jakes undercover as a Jamaican as he worked his bird smuggling case. We haven’t gotten much insight into this character yet, other than the fact that he doesn’t like it when people touch his orange juice and he likes a good story. After snapping at Mike pretty intensely at their first meeting over breakfast, Jakes pretty much does a 180 and seems like a cool guy the next time they see each other. I’m very interested to learn more about this character.
DEA Agent Paige Arkin (Serida Swan) – Paige was not in the pilot, but Johnny referenced her as a DEA Agent who is out of the house on a job right now. Serida Swan appears in all the promotional material for the show, so I imagine this character will prove to be important as time goes on. Stay tuned….
The plot of the pilot was simple in theory. Lauren convinces Briggs’ to close a deal with an old connection in an attempt to get them closer to the guys who shot Donnie. Mike goes in undercover, they make the bust. All is good. Things get complicated, however, when Felix (Mark Adair-Rios), the man they busted, tells his bosses that Mike is his brother-in-law. Realizing that a family member makes great collateral, the Russians bail Mike out of jail and tell him he needs to murder someone or they will kill Felix’s wife and children. The goal is to have something to hold over Felix’s head. He won’t ever roll over on them, because if he does, they will turn in his brother-in-law.
Things get really interesting when Mike is sent in to kill the victim of their choosing and it turns out to be Donnie. Donnie and Mike have never met, and Donnie almost kills Mike before he’s able to clear up who is and why he’s there. Mike empties his gun and then returns to tell the Russians he’s done as they ask. [Side note, two questions: 1. is it really that easy to break into a government ordered safe house? 2. The Russians trusted Mike that Donnie was dead just because they heard gunshots? Really?] The Russians want Mike to get back in their car but he senses that it’s a bad idea. Briggs shows up and shoots the two men in the car. His story is he knew they were holding guns, but he couldn’t have seen them. Mike seems unhappy at the rashness of Briggs’ decision, but concedes that Briggs saved his life.
The biggest reveal happens at the end of the episode. The gang is throwing a little party for Mike to celebrate his successful first day when his phone rings. It is his superior, Agent Campbell (Courtney B. Vance), calling to say he heard that Briggs had saved Mike’s life. Mike confirms the information, to which Campbell replies “your assignment is to investigate Agent Briggs. Is this going to interfere with that?” Mike, stunned, assures him that it will not. Now we know why someone with top priority was reassigned and didn’t receive his first placement request.
All in all, Graceland, was the perfect pilot – interesting relationships, actor chemistry, clever writing, and intriguing bits of story that will continue to unfold as the season goes on. It has set the stage for an exciting season of television, and I can’t wait to watch it unfold with all of you.
What did you think of the pilot?
Favorite Quote, Episode 1×01, Pilot:
“We got lucky, Felix does have a brother-in-law with a passing resemblance to Mike. By which I mean, he’s white.” – Gerry Silvo, Supervising Agent of Graceland.