EPIX has never produced original programming before this week, so it was difficult to know what to expect from “Graves,” its first foray into comedy — a political satire about an ex-president and his dysfunctional family. One might expect some understandable version of growing pains. So it’s remarkable just how much of a finished product “Graves” is, from casting to editing. The political comedy, starring Nick Nolte and Sela Ward, is both genuinely funny and genuinely moving, displaying a kind of rigor in its storytelling that is frequently lost on networks new to original programming.
The premise asks a fascinating, provocative question: What if the former most powerful person in the world, given a chance to reflect on his legacy, began to realize that it had all been a huge mistake? With all of the free time of semi-retirement — interrupted only by photo ops, charity speeches, and funerals — would new perspective seep in? And if it did, what would he do about it?
Such is the question facing Nolte’s Richard Graves, a former Republican president in semi-retirement in Albuquerque who has just realized that he was a terrible president. There is no inciting incident; at the beginning of the pilot, he just suddenly gets it. Nolte, gruff and charming, is wonderful as Graves, who doesn’t become a better person overnight; one of the smart elements of the show, and Nolte’s performance, is that the former president is both endearing and frustrating, a man who clearly has good intentions but still gets trapped in his own selfish stubbornness. If Graves does find a way to make amends, it will be in fits and starts — offering plenty of material for future episodes.
Graves’ wife, Margaret (Sela Ward), is less than thrilled with her husband’s late-life crisis — a sharply dressed power wife with aspirations of her own, Margaret is forced to either handle, scold, or tolerate Graves as he pursues his own self-actualization. Their two children, Olivia (Hélene Yorke) and Jeremy (Chris Lowell), rich kids with rich-kid problems, are eventually also drawn into Graves’ soul-searching, as is his new assistant Isaiah (Skylar Astin), one of the only young people in America who actually liked the former president’s conservative policies. In what is, again, an excellent measure of skill, the supporting characters are quirky and distinct without being caricatures. “Graves” puts its sitcom ensemble into place without any evident strain.
Nolte leans into “Graves” crotchety, impulsive soul-searching — which leads him, at first, to vandalizing public property erected in his honor and then getting high with someone he barely knows on a nearby golf course. Public drunkenness is not out of the question, either. But Nolte also plumbs Graves’ deep and even bottomless remorse, depicting this antihero as someone who meant to be a hero, but eventually lost his way. In one of the most affecting moments, Graves stands in front of a memorial for soldiers who died in a war he began, and observes with real sadness: “These were just kids. And I sent them to be slaughtered — just, slaughtered. And I don’t even remember why.” In another scene, he reads political articles about his presidency — and the condemnations of his policy bring tears to his eyes.
But — in what converts the tragedy to comedy — Graves’ regret is not without an outlet. Having come to new conclusions about his actions, Graves sets about trying to make things right. And because he is a former president, he has a platform and reach to do something about it. In an early, brilliant arc, Graves regrets his decision-making on immigration policy, so when Immigration and Customs Enforcement start handing out deportation orders based on his laws, he opens up his ranch to be a haven for anyone afraid they’ll be forced to leave the country. A tent city sprouts up on his doorstep overnight, to the horror of his well-heeled family. But the noblesse oblige sits well on Graves, who still carries with him the bearing of a man who once carried the nuclear codes. His overcautious Secret Service detail tries to take out a grateful squatter, who only means to give Graves a token of his gratitude. But before the requisite punchline, Nolte, riding around on his horse, is the very vision of a righteous cowboy, the only good man in the West — an American knight.
In what might be a drawback for some viewers, “Graves” goes specifically after Republican policies, because Graves was a hard-line conservative. And indeed, with his cowboy hats, folksy charm, and multiple wars, Graves seems like an interpretation of Republican President George W. Bush. “Graves” is a kind of what-if fantasy appended to Bush’s history, an attempt to get inside the head of a man who made many controversial decisions. But the show steers away from any obvious presidential satire; the Bushes and Clintons are both name-dropped, ensuring that “Graves” is not seen as trying to tell the story of any one politician. And if anything, Graves’ attempts to makeover the worst parts of his administration point to an idea of revamping the Republican party, which “Graves” never disavows or even openly criticizes.
And though the specifics are about politics — and “Graves” has a field day with our political-media complex, from appearances by Jake Tapper and Wolf Blitzer to Olivia’s vast collection of commemorative crap made about her tenure as First Daughter — the comedy is really about what happens when you think you might have done something wrong. Graves has to process his own regrets somehow, and along the way discovers he has the power to still set things right. “Graves” openly states, in the words of one of its idealistic characters, that it’s never too late to do the right thing.