USA has done extremely well by offering what are known as “blue-sky shows,” programs with a built-in excuse to showcase breezy beachside locales and buff bodies — usually (and in this case) as a backdrop for crime and espionage. By that measure, “Graceland” isn’t so much a new series as a brand extension, particularly inasmuch as it comes from Jeff Eastin, who produces one of those aforementioned programs, “White Collar.” Featuring a top-flight cast, this polished, truth-inspired look at undercover cops is still relatively slim material — displaying the kind of cool efficiency that seldom inspires a hunka burning love.
The mildly (and somewhat peripherally) fact-based part of the festivities involves a beachfront Southern California house the government appropriated from a drug dealer, using the posh hangout as a home for an assortment of law-enforcement officials, like one big crime-fighting frat house. So not only are these feds smarter than the bad guys, they have better abs and can out-surf them too.
Of course, there has to be a newbie’s-eye-view into this peculiar arrangement, and that comes courtesy of Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit, featured in “Les Miserables”), an FBI agent who moves into one of the rooms when a DEA operative on an undercover drug sting is presumed dead. As the latest arrival, he’s subjected to hazing by the existing residents, led by the mysterious Paul Briggs (“Rescue Me’s” Daniel Sunjata), whose badass reputation leads colleagues to speak of him in hushed, reverent tones.
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“Do I look like your frat buddy?” one of the gruff house veterans asks, a scolding vibe reiterated when Mike is told the house rules include no “local girls” upstairs. Fortunately, the young agent receives a bit more encouragement from Charlie (Vanessa Ferlito), who joins Serinda Swan as the beach-attire-please female cops in this coed facility.
Character development notwithstanding, Mike is pretty quickly sucked into an undercover operation, setting a more elaborate plot into motion. There are also some clever twists as the story progresses, and the addition of an intriguing drug czar (“The Wire” alum Gbenga Akinnagbe) in later episodes, forcing Mike to earn his trust — and exploring the gray areas that going undercover entails, which can include bending the rules.
Still, “Graceland” has assembled a lot of first-rate actors (including guests Jay Karnes, as Graceland’s overseer; and Courtney B. Vance as Mike’s boss) in the service of a rickety vehicle — albeit one tailor-made for a summer outdoor ad campaign.
While everything here is reasonably compatible with lead-in “Burn Notice,” the few high notes ultimately can’t disguise how ordinary a visit to “Graceland” feels. Still, amid USA’s usual post-Memorial Day onslaught of original dramas, the show gets by on atmosphere to the same degree its beachfront extras are dressed: just barely.