USA’s Graceland has aired four episodes to date, and I still don’t know how I feel about it. Usually I will give any show a three episode grace period if it shows even a smidgen of promise and Graceland certainly qualifies for that. However, after four I still have no idea whether it is destined to simply maintain its current level of entertaining mediocrity or grow into something with more emotion and solid storytelling rather than the “pretty people in SoCal” tableau they’ve gone with thus far. What’s different with this show is that I can’t really tell what needs to change for me to enjoy it more than I am right now. Aaron Tveit’s good looks? Check. Daniel Sunjata in a thankless role, but with good looks? Check. Good direction, chemistry within the cast, and at least passable storytelling? Check. It has all of the things that a normal USA summer series should, and yet I’m left cold and wondering how much longer I’ll stick around.
After thinking about it for a while, I realized that the problem with Graceland isn’t that it has the wrong identity, but that it has no identity at all. This was supposed to be USA’s foray into darker territory, away from the “Blue Skies” motto and towards darker ideas and characters. Since the premiere it seems that USA has backed off of this strategy due to fear of change or a necessary retool. It would make sense from their point of view that they saw something that wasn’t quite clicking with the plot machinations and wanted to start leaning more heavily on the chemistry between the cast rather than drug deals and almost-murders, but it doesn’t make sense that they would actually pull a 180 and start making Graceland seem like Burn Notice 2.0. If you want to go dark, you need stakes. So far the stakes have seemed like jokes. For the rest of the season it’s more important for the inter-house betrayals to meld with the story than for the procedural pieces to become more interesting. Right now, the tone of this show seems like two or more jammed together and most of these tonal problems can be seen in the music choices the show has made thus far.
Most USA shows have a specific and individualized musical template combined with a standard USA-style background theme. Royal Pains uses indie music that would be most welcome on your radio with the windows down on a hot day. Burn Notice goes with action movie knock-offs, Suits and White Collar with a little edgier New York inspired soundtracks, and Covert Affairs goes with uplifting music that balances out the quasi-tragic spy life its characters lead. Graceland has none of that. So far, the theme song, closing music, and everything in between seems to come from three distinctly different genres, or even shows. In the second episode Mike runs along the beach and takes part in his morning routine to “Poolside” by California Sunset. A song that would find a home in pretty much every California-set show ever, it’s light and bubbly and pairs perfectly with the sunshine and colors of the beach setting. Then, the team goes to a night club to meet a previously unseen house member currently undercover and help her on a mission, where the music switches over to a darker, moodier, night club-ish direction as you would expect. But then two minutes later, while still in the club, they introduce said team member via a karaoke performance of the upbeat “Girl Can’t Help It”. For the rest of the episode (and both that have aired since then) the music choices bounce back and forth from heavy to upbeat and everywhere in between without ever being able to come across as cohesive or belonging in this show at all.
What seems to be happening is no one behind the scenes can make a decision and stick with it for longer than three scenes. Using musical choices that work are a start, but when a show continues to attempt a balancing act of light and dark without any real reason it stops being about “appropriate songs” and starts becoming about “appropriate genres”. You can use different tones at some points when necessary, but if you keep it in the same genre it at least becomes a manageable variance of songs. Using all indie tracks, for example, isn’t an issue if you span the genre and choose what is appropriate for each scene. But if a show switches back and forth from rap to indie to background music it’s very difficult to seem like anyone knows what they’re doing.
A trick that I don’t think Graceland has yet mastered is utilizing its standard background theme properly, instead slotting music cues where a backing track would do or using the theme when simply leaving a scene to breathe would be a better option. Granted, that’s an issue that most USA shows are saddled with but for Graceland it’s just another one to add to the list of tweaks that could or should be made. After a week off last week for the holiday, Graceland airs its fifth episode tomorrow night. Hopefully it comes back from this brief hiatus a little more focused and on one side of the street in regards to mood but I’m not very optimistic at this point. Still, I’ll keep watching to see if all of these disparate pieces of something that could be good ever manage to click.