USA is taking a grittier turn with Graceland.
The new drama (Thursday,10 p.m. ET/PT), which is based on true events, follows a team of undercover government agents living in a California beach house seized from a drug lord with an Elvis Presley fixation.
Death, torture and drugs help to paint a grimmer picture than some other popular shows on USA, which is known for a bright, "blue skies" outlook.
"Especially as you get farther into the show, it definitely gets darker. For a USA show, it gets very dark," says Jeff Eastin, who created both Graceland and USA's White Collar.
At the heart of the ensemble are two very capable FBI agents: Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata, Rescue Me), an undercover legend who can play it fast and loose, and Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit, Les Miserables), an ambitious newbie who arrives at the house with a more buttoned-down approach.
Sunjata sees Briggs as "the guardian of Graceland. You see him wrestling with different aspects of himself, some good and some not so good. He's a great template for the anti-hero character ... Paul Briggs is the kind of agent who is willing to do what it takes in order to accomplish what he wants to accomplish."
Briggs has an immediate effect on recent Quantico graduate Warren. "The nature of our relationship is on its surface one of a mentor-mentee, a teacher-student. But as the show progresses, we see it unfold into much more than that," Sunjata says. "On one level, they become friends. On another level, they become somewhat adversarial."
Warren, an ambitious, "classic Type A," has to adjust quickly to his new surroundings, Tveit says.
"There's a lot of push and pull and one-upsmanship" with Briggs. "At the core of it, they're just two very smart guys and very good agents, but they look at things very differently, so that lends itself to a lot of conflict."
The two are joined at Graceland by another FBI agent, Joe "Johnny" Tuturro (Manny Montana, The Chicago Code); two DEA agents, Catherine "Charlie" Lopez (Vanessa Ferlito, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) and Paige Arkin (Serinda Swan, Breakout Kings); and a U.S. Customs agent, Dale Jakes (Brandon Jay McLaren, Falling Skies).
The shared living arrangement was one of the draws for Eastin.
"My fear at the time was the story almost sounded too good to be true. You take all these young, good-looking undercover agents (and) you stick them into a beautiful beach house. It was such a great story," he says. "I loved the fact you had these guys who are risking their lives every day in really dangerous assignments but then they'd come home and have the regular trials and tribulations that everybody does with their roommates."
The house was the one place that these people could let go of their false identities. "The only place you could be yourself was inside those walls," he says.
Eastin, a fan of The Shield, sees an opportunity to delve into the lives of housemates in the serialized series.. "It's probably a much deeper character exploration than some of the other shows I've done. The A stories in terms of the villain of the week and stuff really take second place to what's happening to the characters."
The real Graceland agents often worked together, which isn't always the case with competing government agencies, Tveit says.
"In this house, the agents helped each other out and did share information. As the season really gets going, the big case we're all working on starts to bleed over and everyone gets involved," he says.
Although the drama, shot mostly in Florida, gets gritty as the agents investigate their cases, lighter moments can be found in the inter-agency household.
"The comedy comes out of the relationships and the situations," Tveit says. "I feel like it's a bit of a dichotomy. It gets really bad in our work lives, but then all of us come back home to this kind of dysfunctional family. Even though we're thrown together, there is a lot of love and humor there, so I think it's a nice escape for all these agents."