Aaron Tveit, left, as Mike Warren and Daniel Sunjata as Paul Briggs in "Graceland." (USA Network )
"Graceland," an original crime drama premiering June 6 on USA Network, isn't set in Memphis.
Instead, the location is sunny and sexy Manhattan Beach, where agents with the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement mastermind dangerous sting operations. When they're not surfing or partying, that is.
Sound farfetched? Maybe, but "Graceland" is inspired by the true story of a beachfront mansion once owned by a drug kingpin — and huge Elvis Presley fan. Seized by the U.S. government in 1992, the mansion was used until 2001 as a secret operations base.
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Jeff Eastin, the show's creator and executive producer, recalls that he was impressed "right off the bat" when former inhabitants told him about the intense goings-on at Graceland. Despite their proximity to surf and sand, these undercover feds led extremely stressful lives.
"There was a burnout rate of about two years," Eastin explains. "Dating was impossible. You never told anybody what you really did for a living. Your life was on the line all the time dealing with drug dealers and cartels. Then when you came home you had all the usual issues, such as cleaning the bathroom."
Eastin, who also created and serves as executive producer of the "White Collar" crime series on USA, points out that "Graceland" marks a "big-time departure" for the basic cable network, which has built a successful brand with so-called blue-sky programming.
"We want to push the limit a little bit more," he says of his gritty drama. "We try to keep it fairly light on 'White Collar.' We want it to be open to anyone without previous knowledge of the show. 'Graceland' is different."
Eastin says he hopes "people will look to USA for this new direction and get on board with it right out of the blocks," noting that each one-hour episode of "Graceland" builds on the previous installment — growing darker and darker as the season progresses.
The fictional roommates of "Graceland" have it rough — even though they're young, attractive and living rent-free on prime beachfront property.
Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata, "Rescue Me"), the alpha male on this "island of misfit toys," is an FBI legend under increased scrutiny because of his troubled past and unorthodox law enforcement methods.
Briggs reluctantly takes on the assignment of training newcomer Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit, "Les Misérables"), an ambitious, quick-study FBI rookie. Being sent on a secret mission to Graceland is initially a disappointment for Warren, who anticipated a fast-track assignment in Washington, D.C.
Another housemate is Joe "Johnny" Tuturro (Manny Montana, "Chicago Code"), a prankster who nearly became a gangbanger like his brother before training as a Navy SEAL and later joining the FBI.
Dale "DJ" Jakes (Brandon Jay McLaren, "Falling Skies") is the lone wolf of this odd bunch. A short-tempered and highly territorial ICE agent, he nevertheless becomes a team player in the clutch.
The women of the house are Catherine "Charlie" DeMarco (Vanessa Ferlito, "Stand Up Guys") and Paige Arkin (Serinda Swan, "Breakout Kings").
Charlie is a versatile FBI agent who can pose as anyone from a strung-out druggie to a polished businesswoman. And Paige is a hard-charging DEA agent who looks the part of a Manhattan Beach surfer girl.
Although the subject matter is heavy — narcotics trafficking and other major crimes — "Graceland" has an undercurrent of humor mixed with bikinis, surfboards and beach counterculture.
People often wonder how a show set in one of the most scenic places on Earth can credibly delve into ruthless underworld violence, according to Eastin. Though there is a certain amount of irony, he says, "We definitely get there."
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