USA’s super-slick new crime drama, “Graceland” (premiering Thursday night), is based (we are told) on the true story of a Southern California beach mansion seized by the feds in the 1990s. It was then used for the next decade by various law enforcement agencies — the FBI, the DEA, Customs — as a base of operations for undercover agents.
From this point, the active imaginations of TV step in to work some magic, but also install some cop-show cliches. In “Graceland,” a bright, young Quantico grad, Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit), is assigned by his FBI superior to move to L.A. and live in a tony beachside spread — nicknamed Graceland because the previous owner, a drug dealer, had an obsession for Elvis memorabilia — with a ragtag band of undercover agents who are informally led by Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata). One agent masquerades as a heroin addict; another plumbs the underworld of illegal imports; another concentrates on shady arms and weapons deals; and so on.
“Graceland’s” creator, Jeff Eastin, is also responsible for the USA hit, “White Collar,” and though “Graceland” has a grittier and perhaps slightly more complex premise, both shows fixate on style before substance. Over the past few months, “Graceland’s” publicity team sent what seems like several tons of heavy-stock portfolios of Herb Ritts-like photographs of its cast, palm trees, power lines, graffiti, ocean waves and the California sun glinting off concrete. All that this accomplishes is to remind me once more that someone needs to come up with a way to combine crime novels and fashion magazines. People in airports would read nothing else.
Thursday’s pilot episode is duller than the crispier episodes that soon follow. Mike is duly hazed by his unconventional new housemates, while the viewer is made to suffer extended scenes meant to portray the culture shock that “Graceland’s” writers assume a guy from Virginia would experience when he moves to Santa Monica. (Grab a surfboard, bro.)
Eventually, Mike is sent out on an undercover job, and we get down to the business of determining how much of “Graceland” will fixate on procedural cases and how much of it will be devoted to the longer story arc, which is this: Not only is Mike working with Briggs and the gang as an undercover agent, but he’s also supposed to report back to his FBI boss, who suspects that Briggs has gone rogue.
Tveit is kind of an underwhelming Officer Opie here, while Sunjata brings a menacingly ambivalent character to life. “Graceland” occasionally visits some of the same visual and emotional terrain that viewers enjoyed in FX’s short-lived “Terriers” and TNT’s under-appreciated “Southland.” Both of those were also set in Southern California with an eye for a certain, sun-blasted criminal realm. “Graceland” has this look, too, but that’s just about all it has.
One way or another, we’ll eventually conquer this zombie glut. BBC America’s doleful but deeply captivating “In the Flesh,” a three-night miniseries also premiering Thursday, offers the hope of a cure.
Through daily doses of a miracle drug (injected painfully between the vertebrae), the zombie hordes of England have been mostly tamed and reintroduced to society as sufferers of “partially deceased syndrome.” All they need are some pretty contact lenses and a whole lot of foundation. “In the Flesh” picks up four years after “the rising,” when the recently deceased rose from their graves and went on a killing spree. Among them was Kieren (Luke Newberry), an 18-year-old who committed suicide.
Now as cured as a zombie can be, Kieren is returned to his family in a rural town. His parents nervously welcome him back, but they also have to hide him from a band of vigilantes who still want to see all zombies (“rotters”) killed; one of the vigilantes is Kieren’s teenage sister, who must now balance her protectionist fervor with her grief over her brother’s death and grisly resurrection. Without his daily meds, Kieren could easily become a monster again, yet he finds himself irresistibly drawn to an “undead” movement that advocates the zombie lifestyle.
“In the Flesh” skillfully navigates several genres at once, all of them heavy, none of them comic. It is first and foremost a kind of horror film, but its horrors are emotional and sociological. It’s a fascinating exploration of essential mortality metaphors: If we could have the dead back with us, would we be able to love them the way we once did?
(75 minutes) premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. on USA.
(three-part miniseries) premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. on BBC America. Continues Friday and Saturday.