TV Rewind: Graceland Was the Darker, Sexier, Unsung Successor to White Collar

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TV Rewind: <i>Graceland</i> Was the Darker, Sexier, Unsung Successor to <i>White Collar</i>

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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Back in the blue sky days of the mid-to-late aughts, USA was a basic cable hit factory cranking out semi-light procedurals like Suits, Covert Affairs, Psych and Burn Notice to millions of fans primed to devour those accessible little cases of the week.

But toward the back end of that programming strategy, the network gave White Collar creator Jeff Eastin the freedom to go a little darker with a project that would eventually become Graceland. It was an odd fit on the schedule at the time, which could explain why plenty of folks don’t remember it.

Instead of chasing white collar crimes in flashy suits in front of sweeping vistas of the Manhattan skyline, Graceland follows a team of young undercover agents in the seedy, dirty underbelly of Southern California. It’s certainly slick and stylish, but carved out its own aesthetic during its three-season run from 2013-2015.

The series starred Daniel Sunjata as mysterious senior FBI agent Paul Briggs, who runs a seized beach house called Graceland that has been converted into an undercover hub for young, good-looking agents (this is TV, after all). Things get twisty when hotshot Quantico grad Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit) is sent to Graceland with a secret mission: get close to Briggs and investigate his new boss, to figure out if he’s simply really good at running undercover missions, or truly playing both sides of the law.

The cast is rounded out by an excellent ensemble, including Vanessa Ferlito (FBI agent Charlie DeMarco), Manny Montana (FBI agent Johnny Tuturro), Brandon Jay McLaren (ICE agent Dale Jenkins) and Serinda Swan (DEA agent Paige Akin).

Though Mike’s suspicions of Briggs are the narrative thread that drives the series early on, it’s also a procedural with a fascinating case-of-the-week set-up, focusing on undercover assignments and crimes taking place around the underlying intrigue. Unlike the more PG-13 level stories of White Collar, Graceland doesn’t shy away from tackling headier subject matters, with long-tail investigations digging into everything from sex trafficking, drugs, murder, and gang turf wars. Think The Shield, but everyone is just ridiculously good-looking (and let’s be honest, a bit glossier, as nothing can be as gritty as The Shield).

The characters all quickly prove to be deeply flawed and human behind their badges, grappling with their own failed relationships, insecurities, addictions, and plenty of moves that could easily conflict with their day jobs in law enforcement. Sure, those types of stories aren’t that unusual now, but a decade ago it was a more novel pitch.

Keeping the status quo relatively the same is typically a hallmark of the police procedural, but during its run Graceland managed to constantly reinvent itself by building its stories around the distrust and shifting alliances playing out through the halls of Graceland itself. Mike’s the young rookie one season, and placed in charge of the entire house operation later on, where he’s tasked with trying to pay off a high-risk theory that could torpedo his burgeoning career if he can’t close the case.

Graceland managed to run for a total of 38 episodes, but was arguably the victim of bad timing and mixed messaging about how exactly it fit into the “blue sky” portfolio USA had built its primetime lineup around. It fell into a nebulous middle ground where it was still a bit too light and slick to be a super-serious prestige drama, but a bit too dark and heavy to make for escapist fun.

Viewed in hindsight, the show does stand as an interesting marker into what USA was becoming with its next phase of original series over the next few years. After Graceland, USA leaned harder into more serious fare, with shows like the miniseries thriller Dig, the acclaimed mystery hit Mr. Robot, sci-fi actioner Colony, and horror anthology The Purge. Considering where that programming plan ended up, it’s easy to imagine Graceland as the in-between step to bridging those strategies. But at the time, it was just a show that didn’t exactly have a clear space on the schedule.

With the show now streaming on Hulu seven years after it ended, Graceland holds up remarkably well on its own merits. A cop show not afraid to tackle some serious subject matter, assembled in a slick package that asks some interesting questions about identity and struggles, but one that doesn’t getso dark it’ll leave you broken once the binge comes to an end (looking at you again, The Shield). As for the series finale, if you opt for a binge, the show has a closed-enough ending that leans even harder into the more provocative, grey areas of storytelling. It’s open-ended enough to seem clear the creators were hoping for a fourth season, but for a show that spent most of its time in the dense messy details, it’s a more-than fitting way to wrap up the story and final note to end it hanging on.

For White Collar fans looking to recapture those vibes, the show clearly has that shared DNA brought over from creator Jeff Eastin, just with a more ambitious reach into trying to tell more mature stories while still maintaining that trademark cool aesthetic through it all. If you missed the series the first time around, or simply don’t remember much about it (I had completely forgotten the show ran for a full three seasons), it’s well worth revisiting.

Watch on Hulu



Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.

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