After devouring all six seasons of White Collar, the next logical step would be for me to start binge-watching yet another Jeff Eastin show. According to the IMDb trivia for Graceland, he actually wrote it before White Collar, but decided not to pitch it to the network right away and wait until he felt they were ready for something ‘darker’.
If there’s one thing both shows have in common it’s that the viewer is constantly caught off guard: we hardly ever expect the frequent plot twists. Although admittedly much darker (and violent) than White Collar, both shows move in a similarly fast pace; there’s depth to the characters, each of them balancing between loyalty, work ethic, personal agendas and a multitude of secrets slowly revealed throughout the seasons.
As an aside, I find it interesting that both Jeff Eastin shows have slightly misleading titles: much like I expected White Collar to revolve around boring Wall Street types and embezzlement or ponzi schemes, when I first heard of Graceland, I imagined it to be some kind of Elvis biopic. Fortunately the only Elvis reference is the actual name of the show, which is also the unofficial name of the house the cast shares, named so by its former owner, a drug lord who just happened to be an Elvis fan.
As another aside, I also find it interesting that the three USA Network shows I enjoy (White Collar, Graceland and Suits) all hinge on a similar premise: lead characters who pretend to be someone they’re not; in the case of Suits, we have a memory-wiz who works as a lawyer without an actual law degree; in White Collar, we have a master con man and art thief working as an FBI consultant, without having really abandoned his criminal activities.
And in the case of Graceland, the entire premise rests on the cast pretending to be drug dealers, addicts and various other underworld types, depending on their undercover roles. To take this a step further, all of the characters are law-enforcing agents on the surface; in reality, they are as guilty of various crimes as some of their most sought-after culprits.
Although the pilot episode sets the tone for the entire first season of the show, we soon find out that there’s more to this story than a bunch of federal agents – representing the FBI, DEA and Customs – living together in a mansion of a beach house and collaborating on cases, mostly focusing on drug trafficking (and gun trafficking, oh and human trafficking… so basically any kind of trafficking).
Season 1: amazeballs
The first season of the show starts out fairly straight-forward: an FBI rookie, fresh out of Quantico and first of his class, is sent to L.A. instead of his preferred Washington assignment, to join a team of undercover agents who seem to have it pretty good: swanky beach house, surfing and partying on the beach, catching bad guys.
Graceland doesn’t stray far from the various cliches of its genre; for one thing, the tight-knit group is not exactly diverse: all of the leads are young, attractive people, because God forbid the Federal Government might actually hire someone who’s not pleasing to the eye. The setup doesn’t rank very high on the believability scale, especially once we take a virtual tour of the amazing house they all share, but apparently the Graceland is based on true events so having a handful of agents living it up in a mansion might actually be plausible for all I know
Either way, rookie Mike Warren soon learns that he was assigned to Graceland to (secretly) investigate his training officer and FBI legend Paul Briggs, whom the Bureau believes to be dirty.
In the first few episodes, we explore the relationship between the two. Mike quickly begins to trust Briggs and to turn a blind eye to his penchant for breaking the rules, as he brings in results and saves Mike’s life in the process. The cases they tackle often blur the lines between FBI, DEA and Customs jurisdiction, which requires collaboration among the roommates. All of them have a deep sense of loyalty to each other, approaching their living arrangements as a sort of sacred sanctuary; maintaining its integrity is a top priority for the group. This inevitably puts Mike in a tough spot, given that his assignment is the equivalent of being a rat.
As the season progresses, it becomes clear that Paul’s secret and Mike’s investigation of his activities is closely linked to the one big case that brings the first season to its big crescendo finale. In order to keep from turning Briggs into a villain, the actual bad guy needs to surpass him in violence, cruelty and deceit. This is easily accomplished by painting Jangles as the ultimate boogeyman: demented, seemingly invincible, and the worst part is, no one has even seen his face.
By the final episode of the season, it manages to tie up several loose ends, with our team getting the bad guy, Paul’s secret temporarily protected and Mike still ambiguous about Briggs and eager to return to Washington.
Season 2: sh*t hits the fan
Then Season 2 begins and everything starts to unravel. If HTGAWM jumped the shark in its second season, then Graceland really bit the dust after the first few episodes for me. Alas, binge-watching fiend as I am, I just had to see it through to the end.
The problem with blurring the lines between black and white, good guys and bad, is that, more often than not, they become so blurry they’re impossible to define. While we are comfortable with seeing the dark side of the main characters and even remain supportive – and in this aspect Graceland is quite reminiscent of Breaking Bad – at some point they seem to lose track of what they’re doing. Unfortunately for Jeff Eastin, he is no Vince Gilligan, and this plot device is more of a gimmick.
Accidental murders, drug use, cover-ups and evidence tampering aside, it’s one thing to root for the protagonists even though they cross the line every now and then, and quite another to perceive them as bad as the villains they’re trying to catch. There comes a point where they just stop being likable, and any redeeming actions are frankly too little too late when it comes to the people supposedly in charge of enforcing the law.
Every single character starts to spiral out of control during the second season, with Mike and Paige leading the charge in their seemingly endless pursuit of Sid and the human trafficking ring, culminating in a real clusterf*ck in season 3. In their quest to catch their personal nemesis, whether it’s dirty cop Sid, drug lord Carlito, Germaine the torturous money-launderer or the Armenian heavy arms dealers later on, they break countless laws and leave several dead bodies behind in the process. As far as agents go, this bunch is probably the least effective team ever – and to reward them with their swanky dwellings and free reign to use FBI resources for their wild goose chases makes very little sense.
What makes even less sense is that all the rules they were supposed to abide by when they started out together seem to have gone out the window. Any semblance of trust has quickly dissipated, and so have the lines between FBI, DEA and Customs territories: if it means helping out their fellow roommates catch the bad guy or, more often than not, cover up their own mess, any one of the agents is fair game, regardless of skill or experience. It’s no wonder every single operation they stage turns into a full-blown disaster, and it’s even more puzzling that the head FBI honchos are still enabling them.
What’s worse is that they can’t seem to catch a break. By the time Season 3 rolls around, they’ve dug themselves into a hole big enough to swallow the entire Graceland mansion.
Season 3: off the deep end
Good guy Mike turns into a druggie lunatic trying to interpret his dreams by connecting them to a new case; Paige betrays Mike to Sid and gets drawn into Briggs’ case as a way of penance for almost getting Mike killed; Sid gets away with just about everything before he finally meets his demise at the hands of Johnny; Charlie loses her baby (and almost dies herself) in her pursuit of Germaine; Johnny pretty much runs Carlito’s drug empire above the border in order to save Lucia, only to have her leave him as soon as she is rescued; and poor DJ gets sucked into every other case, having had his own personal meltdown back in season 2.
Just like the accidental murder (and cover-up) of Juan Padillo in Seasons 1 and 2, Paul’s activities are never really above board, but Season 3 really takes this plot device and runs with it: Mike’s entire story arc, from jotting down what he remembers from the 6 minutes he spent in limbo when he flatlined, to discovering Gusti and the (supposed) sarin canister, to deciding to get cleaned up, was all meticulously planned and executed to perfection by Briggs. Mike’s obsession with nailing Paul is the only spanner occasionally thrown in the works, threatening to bring down his elaborate plan.
Soon all the characters are involved in the convoluted scheme to incite a gang war between the Mexicans and the Armenians and save Paul from the clutches of FBI head honcho Logan, who’s set up an devious trap that will pay off twofold: not only will Briggs bring in the Armenian gun smuggler but he will also be the ‘sin-eater’. To avoid being the fall guy, Paul not only designs this very convoluted plan, which ends up involving every single one of his roommates in several unlawful activities, but also has the foresight to secure a plan B for himself, by having Jakes skim off a few million dollars from the money laundering operation he and Charlie had set up in Miami to catch Germaine.
A few dead bodies later, Briggs and Co. can walk away scot-free, but their conscience is paying the price, and no one’s more so than Mike’s, who decides to come clean to the FBI about everything. In a weird turn of events, the person least involved in the illegal activities (aside from the stolen 9 million) takes off with the cash and his new lawyer girlfriend, who seems perfectly okay with everything. Mike decides to cover for Briggs and the others after all, in exchange of saving Gusti from prison, and we’re left with a house full of broken people, who have obviously gone too far to ever recover and get things back to normal.
Although there’s still a possibility that the show gets picked up by a different network, I’m actually glad Graceland ended this way, even if some things are still up in the air (particularly Jakes’ fate and the manhunt we can assume will ensue to bring him in).
All of them have done things they can’t get back from – lying, stealing, murdering and covering up – and have destroyed any semblance of trust in each other, several times over. At some point along the way, it stopped being about catching the bad guys, because they had become villains themselves. The ends didn’t justify the means any more, because their goals were self-serving rather than noble. Even though some of the characters seem to be more remorseful and guilt-ridden than others, what bound them together in the first place – the famous “There are no secrets in Graceland” line – has not only been proven false time and time again over the course of three seasons, as none of the events that transpired would have happened if not for all the secrets, but has also become the anchor that will sink them all if one of them strays from the course.
After browsing comments and reviews of the show, I seem to belong in the minority who believes Graceland went downhill from season 2 onwards. Maybe it’s because I tend to identify with idealistic Season 1 Mike, or maybe it’s hard to relate to the truly unbelievable events of seasons 2 and 3. Either way, although the show was undoubtedly kicked into high gear as the seasons progressed and was undeniably entertaining, it lost some of its earlier magic for me. If it is eventually revived and we get the opportunity to follow the characters’ story arc further, I’m hoping for a complete reboot, as it will be interesting to see if the group can recover from the insanity, regroup and start over with a ‘clean’ slate. If the season 3 finale really is the end, it’s as good a way to go as any.