The mantra of the USA Network, whose new series, Graceland, premieres June 6, 2013, is “characters welcome.”  And, truly, the law enforcement drama written and produced by Jeff Eastin (White Collar) finds its strength in the subtle and complex interactions of its cast and the advancement of the plot through the development of its protagonists.

The series, which is being previewed on demand, is set in a California safe house for government agents.  It stars Aaron Tveit as FBI rookie Mike Warren and Daniel Sunjata as his legendary mentor, Paul Briggs and also features a strong supporting cast including Vanessa Ferlito as a wise and sympathetic Charlie, Manny Montana as a charming, street-wise Johnny, and Brandon Jay McLaren (Dale Jakes) and Serinda Swan  (Paige Arken/not in first episode) rounding out the confraternity.

The tautly written first episode introduces the viewer to the central conflict of the drama – the relationship between Warren the top of his class, ambitious, and idealistic new recruit, and Briggs, a once indomitable agent, now “all Zen-ed out,” as Charlie explains. The clever twists of the first hour set up the basic tensions between the pair and hint at more revelations to come.

As Briggs, Daniel Sunjata strikes the right combination of nonchalance, smugness, and steel.  There is an air of moral ambiguity about him from the outset, conveyed by his Cheshire cat smile of mystery, his sarcastic humor, and aloof self-possession.

As his foil, Aaron Tveit’s Mike Warren proves to be the focal point of the drama and continues to demonstrate his range as an actor.  Tveit plays the newly graduated agent with a subtlety, sweetness, and sanguinity that avoid stereotypes.  It would be easy to portray Warren as an overachieving, ambitious rookie or wide-eyed innocent, but instead Tveit draws on his unerring instinct to project inner drama in an economical, yet totally engaging manner.  As an actor, he speaks volumes in the darting of his eyes or the barely audible hint of fear battling determination in his voice or in a single on-the-verge laugh when he finds himself in his first deadly encounter. (“It’s my first day,” he quips.) Best of all, Tveit preserves the inscrutability necessary to keep viewers guessing about Warren’s character.

The first episode ends with Warren’s accepting an assignment that will only intensify the cat and mouse game between him and Briggs and which hints at darker and deeply interesting adventures to come.

The show is deftly directly by Renny Harlin (Die Hard2), who manages to maintain a swift pace without ever losing sight of human drama.  The cinematography is atmospheric, though some of the Florida locations meant to suggest Southern California do not always convince.

If this debut episode is an indicator, it seems likely that Graceland will find a wide and enthusiastic audience.  Its savvy plot, winning characters, and compelling performances by Tveit and Sunjata promise to make it one of this season’s biggest hits!

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