Sunday, October 16, 2016

REVIEW: 'Graves' - President Richard Graves Tries to Correct His Past Mistakes in 'Evil Good and Good Evil'

Epix's Graves - Episode 1.01 "Evil Good and Good Evil"

Former President Richard Graves realizes that his policies of 25 years ago have done damage to the country, so he begins a journey to right his administration's wrongs. Olivia tries to find her identity after separating from her wealthy husband.

Over the past year, we've witnessed a crazy presidential election. It has offered so much material to mine for parody purposes. And yet, it's gotten almost impossible for fiction to be crazier than reality. Things have been pushed to some extremely absurd places - and we still have a few more weeks to go! That means any kind of political satire out there needs to be excellent. There is no room for error. Television offers an escape from the realities of life. It's easy to understand why some people would enjoy escaping from this bleak election for a little bit. So if they dive into a political show, it needs to be worth it. Unfortunately, Graves is pure wish fulfillment with absolutely no bite. This marks Epix's first foray into scripted comedy. It lands with such a loud thump that it could poison the well for the channel. This premiere has its schtick and does not deviate from it even though it's formulaic, familiar and just pretty lazy overall.

Of course, things can't be that bad with Nick Nolte playing the lead role. His voice alone is enough to add intrigue and texture to the entire series. It's one magnificent voice. It's abundantly clear that he has lived a fulfilling and challenging life. All of that can be conveyed through his type of growl that then forms words. It has been a huge asset for a number of projects over the years. It adds dimension. It makes him believable as this character. He's a former President, Richard Graves, who has been broken down both by his administration and the years afterwards. He's no longer the strong and confident politician. Instead the challenges of his life have left him visibly older and worse for wear. He's a man with a lasting legacy. But one that may not be as revered as those closest to him have led him to believe. It's in this approach to politics where the show runs into its biggest issues. Nolte does his best to overcome the problematic writing. But it's still largely just him flailing around from scene to scene doing whatever he thinks will be the most entertaining for the moment.

The writing comes from an extremely slanted perspective. Graves is a Republican politician. His administration is celebrated as the last great stand for conservatism in this country. That is made painfully clear by cameo appearances by some real-life politicians - including former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. And yet, the entire premise of the show is Graves realizing just how much damage he has done to this country. And now, he's on a mission to right his wrongs and live a better, more liberated future than the cold, distant life he has been living for the pasty twenty years. It's basically a liberal writer composing the kind of apology he or she wishes any great Republican politician would give. It's clearly wish fulfillment. This is never something that would happen in real life. It's a fantasy. The show doesn't play it that way though. It treats this as some huge epiphany for Graves. The comedy comes from the absurd situations he finds himself in and his family and assistants just standing to the side completely shocked to what he's doing. That's the source for humor in almost every single moment of this premiere. It gets repetitive and annoying fairly quickly. But it never stops. It's the show being proud of this idea and stretching things to the absolute extreme without making sure the character dynamics justify such outlandish behavior.

So, it's suppose to be appealing that Graves is essentially being a frat bro. He's drawing letters on the face of his new assistant, Isaiah, and he's smoking weed with a fun-spirited waitress, Sammy, at the local diner. The narrative sees it as Graves opening up and becoming his true self once more. He has been trapped in the political machine for too long. His actions have had consequences that he is only now realizing. He learns all of that because he decides to use the Internet for once. Again, it's cliche writing to have an older character say that he doesn't like the Internet. It does a poor job of building character. It's a caricature without any kind of nuance. The wave of articles written are suppose to crash into Graves and force him to see the error of his ways. But it's instead a sequence played for seriousness. Is he going to use the swords in his office to hurt himself? Or is he instead going to act even more childishly by smashing everything around him? The show opts for the latter. It's not surprising. This premiere strives for a silly tone. It's not meant to be taken too seriously. But that in turn makes it hard to care about any of the characters or anything that they actually do.

This premiere is almost entirely about Graves. He's the single character of importance. His administration was marred by turmoil from all directions. He had to make some tough choices. Decisions that have stayed with him for a long time. That's complexity added to the character that highlights a life lived. And yet, the ensemble around him have their basic introductions and character details but nothing more. Isaiah is so happy to be working for his idol. And then, he's completely appalled by Graves' actions. This isn't how a politician is suppose to be acting. Isaiah has lived his life with an optimistic view of the world and the sincerity of politicians. That makes no sense but it's the basic foundation of the character. He is suppose to have the opposite reaction to any given situation to play off of Graves. He doesn't understand how anyone could live the way Sammy the waitress does. He doesn't understand how a former President could be this reckless and not interested in continuing to do good work throughout the world. He was hoping to help Graves continue to be a strong leader. And now, it's just more important that he sees the world for what it truly is. But how did he get to this position without coming to the conclusion that politics isn't all that seems? How can he still be this geeky and nebbish given the reality of the political world?

The episode's climatic moment is very weird as well. Graves spends the entire premiere embracing immature behavior in order to lash out at the world for how it turned out because of him. It's a big moment when the Secret Service find him on a golf course and he's yelling at his wife, Margaret, that he's a new man who wants to do things differently. It's still awkward when those words are then translated into action. After embracing the immaturity of the characters, it's difficult for the show to then pivot to sincerity in the final few minutes. Graves is giving a speech at a cancer fundraiser. His programs cut healthcare spending and have made the lives of these people more difficult as a result. He goes off speech and wins over the crowd. The audience is suppose to feel the same way. Yes, Graves has made mistakes in the past because of his conservatism. But now, his eyes are wide open and he's willing to see the world for what it truly is. He's willing to fight for what's right. His family just stand back and nod their heads in agreement. There's no evidence that this will have any grand consequences for their lives moving forward. So if this change in mentality doesn't actually mean something, then what's the point of the show? That's the question that should be lingering on the mind's of anyone who watches this entire premiere.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Evil Good and Good Evil" was written by Joshua Michael Stern and directed by Joshua Michael Stern.
  • Seriously, why would any real-life Republican politicians appear on this show? Did they not read the scripts before signing on? Did they not know the purpose of the narrative? It's just such an odd thing to see actually happening.
  • Graves' daughter, Olivia, has a fairly minor subplot about her husband's affair going public. It's another very broad story where she burns her angry words into expensive pieces of furniture. It is an interesting visual for sure. It's just not a story of much value - except in bringing the daughter back to the family home.
  • Also, Graves has absolutely no reaction to learning that Olivia's marriage has fallen apart. It's a big deal for Margaret. She wants to be there for Olivia even though they don't have a great relationship. But Graves doesn't even seem to know about it. He's too caught up in his own existential crisis to care about anyone else which is really off-putting.
  • Isaiah also mentions Graves' son who is serving in the military overseas and who inspired him to join the Boy Scouts when he was a kid. The other Graves child is never seen. But this piece of exposition wouldn't be dropped if he wasn't going to show up eventually.
  • Sela Ward deserves a strong starring vehicle as well. She's a great actress. And yet, she's only asked to be the exasperated wife here who puts up with her husband's erratic and over-the-top impulses. She has to keep it together while he can fall apart and break whatever he wants.
  • How is their only one security guard at the Presidential Library for Richard Graves? Yes, it's established that it's closed for the day. But wouldn't there be more than one officer there to protect the history that it holds?