Sunday, June 09, 2013

TV: Characters wanted but not required

Graceland debuted on USA Thursday night.  Within ten minutes, it felt as if it had debuted forty years ago.  In fact, series 'creator' Jeff Eastin appears to owe Stephen J. Cannell and Steven Bochco both royalties and apologies.


Graceland is the name of the beach house and agents from various law enforcement branches -- DEA, FBI, ICE --  and, in testimony to the magical powers of a chore wheel, they all cohabitate in peace.  In the real world, these people would be snarling at one another about who had jurisdiction and who was in charge of the crime scene instead of spending the day trying to teach 'newbie' Mike Warren how to surf.

Aaron Tveit plays Mike because Jeff Eastin longs for the day when most males on TV were completely non-sexual.  It's not only as though Friends never aired, it's as though NBC never got the test scores for Jonathan Silverman in season five of Gimme A Break!  Maybe it's Chris O'Donnell's success in NCIS: Los Angeles or just a general affinity for LEGOS that brings the wide and boxy Tveit to California -- where the actor who turns thirty this year but already looks thirty-five -- performs as 'newbie' Mike.

Though Mike can't stop praising FBI agent Briggs (Daniel Sunjata), we learn at the end of the first episode that Mike's actually been sent to spy on Briggs.  His sucking up to Briggs might stand out were it not for the fact that everyone's always praising Briggs.  In fact, the first hour plays like a really bad play by a self-obsessed writer recovering from a non-serious suicide attempt.  Did we mention Jeff Eastin wrote the first episode?

Sunjata was very effective earlier this year on Smash, exhibiting real chemistry with Debra Messing.  Prior to that, his big stand-out was playing Chris on 30 Rock, the cool crew member Liz was so desperate to impress in one episode.  He was in FX's Rescue Me -- a show like many of USA's which kept coming back each season for reasons unexplained.

If Sunjata had any talent for improvisation, he would have exited at least one scene shaking his head and kicking one leg out repeatedly -- to indicate a dog humping his leg because that's what his co-stars (especially Manny Montana as Johnny) came off as.  The part is a lot like the one Patrick Swayze played in Point Break -- but Kathryn Bigelow trusted the actor she hired could project cool  so there was no need to film repeated testimonials from the other characters.

The USA network likes to announce, in their commercials, "Characters welcome."  But the reality is the shows get less and less character based every season.  Graceland, for example, is 80s high concept, fish out of water, at its worst.  USA really made a name for itself with Silk Stalkings. After season two, when CBS dropped the show, USA carried new episodes exclusively through season eight (1999).  The show was USA's first real hit with a scripted drama.  They'd follow it with La Femme Nikita, Monk, Psych, and In Plain Sight -- the latter three especially being character driven.  But then the network grew ever more cartoonish -- so much so that TNT's commercial boast ("We know drama") seemed to be mocking USA.

As TNT aired The Closer, Saving Grace, Raising the Bar and Rizzoli & Isles, USA was premiering live-action Huckleberry Hound in the form of Burn Notice and cheese cake confection Covert Affairs.  Suits was a brief respite but now it's back to these awful shows that look like the cheesy TV 'action' flicks TNT used to air as part of their 90s TNT Friday Night Movie programming.

With Graceland, Jeff Eastin has hit rock bottom.  He's not only aping the work of 70s TV giants, he's aping his earlier attempts to copy those giants.  Graceland is little more than Shasta McNasty -- a point that becomes obvious when Johnny starts flirting with women -- and, to really get the beach scenes in -- as well as the hero worship, Hawaii.  Both of those shows only lasted one season.  After the dismal ratings for the heavily advertised Graceland, you'd hope it would meet the same fate; however, this is USA which, more and more, seems to be a breeding ground for bad TV.

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