Picture-perfect locale? Check. Beautiful people who happen to solve crimes? Check. At first glance, USA's new series Graceland seems perfectly in step with the rest of the cable network's famous "blue sky" brand.
But it only takes the first five minutes of the pilot for the drug needles to come out, for a man to get shot, and for viewers to realize that the forecast isn't as sunny as it seems. "It's a little more partly cloudy with a chance of rain kind of thing," star Daniel Sunjata tells TVGuide.com with a laugh.
Indeed, Graceland is a step in a new direction for the network. Premiering on Thursday at 10/9c, the series is based on true events about a beachfront property seized by the government, aka Graceland, and used as an undercover residence for FBI, DEA and Customs agents.
Long before the show's creator and executive producer Jeff Eastin brought master criminal Neal Caffrey and FBI agent Peter Burke to life on White Collar, he came up with the idea for Graceland after meeting with an agent who had been in charge of one of these undercover houses. "He introduced me to some of the real guys in the house. I talked to some of them and you start realizing, these are really interesting characters," Eastin says. "The lives they lead are fascinating."
Eastin then went to work on bringing (fictional versions) of these characters to life. Graceland centers on Mike Warren (Gossip Girl's Aaron Tveit), a rookie FBI agent who just graduated at the top of his class from Quantico and is suddenly assigned to move to Graceland after another agent is injured. Mike's field supervisor is legendary Quantico graduate Paul Briggs (Rescue Me's Sunjata), who is as mysterious as he is intelligent and headstrong. "This is something that a lot of actors would say about a role, but I haven't had the opportunity to play too many characters that are this layered or this complex," Sunjata says.
The Graceland script got Eastin some early notice, including from Burn Notice creator and executive producer Matt Nix, who read the script when Eastin was in the running to be his No. 2. "He read Graceland as my sample and he told me once he thought it was probably the best script he ever read," Eastin recalls.
However, Nix also voiced some concerns. "He said, 'For me, I don't see the show. I read the pilot — I just don't see where the show goes. Is it a procedural? Is it not?" Eastin recalls. "I realized he was right. That was the problem ... that it doesn't immediately make you go, 'OK, we're going to have a bad guy introduced by page 7.' But that's not how I wanted to tell the story."
Eastin stuck to his guns. "I said, 'This isn't going to be the traditional case of the week,'" he says. "I consider it more like The Shield, where you had a 50/50 thing: 50 percent is the case and the other 50 percent is the characters."
Graceland eventually got put on the backburner while Eastin focused on White Collar. That is, until he heard USA was considering doing a beach-set, cop-type show, at which point Eastin dusted off his old script. "It was the rare case of the writer trying to convince the studio or network not to buy the project because, for me, it was written darker. I was like, if we do it, I want to do it right," Eastin says. "I don't want to mush it down."
To Eastin's surprise, the network fully embraced Graceland's grittier tone. "Towards the end, it even got to the point where I'm saying to them, 'Maybe we should tone it down a little.' They were like, No, no, no. We're going to go all the way to the edge with this one. Turn it up to 11," Eastin says with a laugh. "You have to give USA credit for walking the walk. They lived up to their word."
Although lighthearted dramedies, such as Psych and Royal Pains, have long been the network's bread and butter, Sunjata says that Graceland is just the show to help the network broaden its horizons. "USA is trying to expand their demographic," he says. "It's trying to bring in a younger, edgier, hipper kind of audience, and I think that Graceland will go a long way towards making that happen."
Graceland premieres Thursday at 10/9c on USA.
(Additional reporting by Robyn Ross)