I’d guess the first television review to use some variant of the phrase “You’ve seen this show a thousand times” probably appeared in 1950, when Space Patrol, Buck Rogers and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet all debuted on the heels of the pioneering Captain Video. (“Throw out the interlocks! Hand me the opticon scillometer!” No wonder they call it the Golden Age of Television.)
That dictum — about seeing the show before, not the stuff of opticon scillometers — is invoked frequently, and with justice.
But as Thursday’s new offerings show, “derivative” need not necessarily equate to “bad.” With a simple tweak, BBC America’s In the Flesh offers a welcome new perspective on the overworked zombie genre. And the USA Network’s cop drama Graceland shows that you don’t need to do anything new if you just do it well.
Graceland, surprisingly, has nothing to do with Elvis Presley’s Memphis mansion. The show takes its name from a beachfront mansion the government has seized from a fanboy narcotrafficker and turned into an operational front for federal undercover agents.
Posing as wealthy beach bums, agents from the DEA, the FBI and Customs pursue their quarry with little supervision and less regard for convention. The arrival of FBI rookie Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit, Gossip Girl), an emergency replacement for a DEA officer gunned down during an errant sting, prompts harsh questions from the others, not about his lack of police experience but his sand-and-sun zen.
“Do you surf? You got shorts? Flips? Sunscreen?” one agent demands, shaking his head in disbelief at each negative reply.
Despite a rocky start, Warren’s unexpected talent for improvising when undercover work goes awry wins him a place in the house’s frat-ratty brotherhood. Which includes sisters: Two of the cops are women, one of whom advises him, “You’re gonna find real quick there are no secrets at Graceland.”
She’s lying. The house is rife with secrets, particularly regarding the mysterious events that turned its leader, FBI agent Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata, Rescue Me) from an ambitious, buttoned-down headquarters favorite to a what-me-worry beachcomber with a badge.
And then there’s Warren himself. Why would the FBI send an inexperienced preppy who doesn’t speak Spanish (He learns one phrase, “ Manos arriba!,” hands up, from his seatmate on the flight from Washington) to carry out dangerous undercover narcotics operations in Southern California?
The answers unfold with a delicious tension that makes Graceland an unexpected pleasure. (So does the show’s most unexpected twist: Though set near Los Angeles, it’s shot in Fort Lauderdale. Finally, revenge for all those years of pretending not to notice that CSI: Miami’s beaches looked suspiciously like those around San Diego.)
The principal conceit of In The Flesh is that its zombies have been defanged. After a bloody near-apocalypse known as The Rising, a drug has been discovered that cures their homicidal appetites if not their physical scars.
But, as the first rehabilitated survivors of “Partially Deceased Syndrome” are being reintegrated into society, they find their medication does not prevent terrifying flashbacks nor protect them from denial by their families and hostility from their neighbors.
Recovering zombie teenager Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry) returns home to find his parents baffled by his new halfway state and his no-longer-little sister (who became a teenybopper Ramboette in the anti-zombie militia) still regarding him as a cannibal. When he casually asks her where she’s headed, she snaps: “A ceremony honoring the victims of The Rising — the people whose brains you ate, basically.”
As Kieren’s town turns against returning zombies with measures ranging from segregated bars and restaurants to human death squads, In The Flesh at first seems to be offering itself as a fractured metaphor, with zombies standing in for blacks, gays, Muslims or the social victim of your choice. (That works only if you think cracking a stranger’s skull and eating his brains is the moral equivalent of kissing somebody of the same sex.)
But the show quickly veers into something sweeter, sadder and more thoughtful — a meditation on forgiveness, redemption and second chances.
It can also be unexpectedly funny, as when a woman at a family support group confesses it dismays her less that her son ate people than it does that he’s getting mash notes from women containing stuff like “I want to feel your cold dead hands all over my silky bodice.” Can a Zombie Lifetime Network be far behind?