In the TV business, titles can be funny things. Sometimes they’re essential, and other times they’re almost inconsequential. A good title can help a show succeed, but a bad title isn’t always enough to kill it.
This is why even though some shows have titles that communicate a lot of meaning in a few words—Lost and Alias come to mind—others have titles that don’t necessarily tell you much about the show. After all, Castle has nothing to do with medieval fortresses, Burn Notice had nothing to do with fire, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine is not an off-brand Sesame Street knockoff.
Which leads me to Graceland.
I was originally drawn to it because it was created by Jeff Eastin, the principal creator behind the hit USA series White Collar, which, along with previous USA hit series like Monk, Psych, and Royal Pains, adhered to a “blue sky” format of light-and-breezy stories of talented people in attractive locations getting into wacky antics.
But Graceland is anything but light and breezy. Here’s the premise: six attractive federal agents live in an LA beach house while they work together to take down organized crime rings. While there are plenty of establishing shots of surfers and palm trees, the show mostly centers around the agents and their undercover work. There’s drug abuse, money laundering, and copious amounts of violence—not only physical but also psychological violence. The show is intense.
The title comes from the name of the house, nicknamed “Graceland” because the previous owner was a huge Elvis Presley fan. As much as I love the show—the chemistry between the main characters is compelling and the writing seems authentic for the setting—I’ve always thought the title is puzzling. In an interview, Eastin admits his original title was Safe House and mentions a speech in the pilot episode when one of the agents refers to the house as a sort of sanctuary.
But since the pilot, the characters almost never refer to its nicknamed title, as if “Graceland” was a placeholder that ended up getting used because the writing staff never came up with anything better. (If it were a reality show, it’d be called Beach House Feds.)
Three seasons in, however, I’ve noticed a great irony: within the sacred walls of “Graceland,” there is, despite a shared sense of trust and devotion, precious little grace.
That’s because grace, as a Christian theological concept, has to do with undeserved favor.
Even though our society’s contemporary usage of the word grace isn’t always specifically theological, it’s meaning is still rooted in that definition. Thus, when someone is described as being “graceful” on the tennis court, or exhibiting “grace under fire,” what’s being described is an otherworldly ability to be calm and composed, a characteristic that is clearly a gift and not something that can be generated or developed on one’s own.
While several of the FBI, DEA, and ICE agents on Graceland exhibit an amazing ability to stay composed during horrifically tense, life-threatening situations, it’s also clear that none of them have any clue what the true definition of grace is. That may sound harsh, but once you start paying close attention to both the characters and their motivations, the conclusion is unavoidable.
Graceland is, like a lot of shows with complicated moral themes, about good people pushed to the brink to do bad things in service toward the greater good. As undercover agents, they lie, steal, cheat, use drugs, have sex outside of a marriage relationship . . . occasionally, they even kill. Yet for many of these characters, especially for lead agents Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit) and Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata), they feel so cosmically indebted for their deeds that they keep trying to make up for them. But their efforts end up making situations worse.
For example, one person deceives another and, rather than coming clean, they enlist a third person to help cover it up. Or one person is angry with another, lashes out at them, and then blames it on a third person to deflect their true feelings elsewhere. These behaviors are what make the show feel lifelike and authentic, because as broken, sinful people, this is how we have the capacity to treat each other.
But if I had the power to temporarily enter the show’s creative universe, I would fashion myself as a therapist and bellow out, Dr. Phil style, “Stop trying to fix everything!”
Like many memorable TV characters, the agents who live in “Graceland” have developed amazing professional habits and instincts that serve them well as officers of the law, but many of those same tactics and postures—deceit, mistrust, vigilance—wreak havoc on their relationships inside the house. And for Briggs and Warren, their inability to trust is what drives them to keep trying to make up for the bad things that happen. They think if they’re smart enough and if their plans are airtight, they can somehow make everything right again, so they keep their plans under wraps to prevent others from screwing them up—which means they just end up screwing them up themselves.
A theological term illustrates this predicament. It’s called “atonement.” Used generally, the term means “to make up for a wrong or an injury.” But in biblical theology, atonement is making up for sin. And here’s the important thing to understand about atonement. You and I? We can’t do it.
Imagine a six-year-old who accidentally runs into an entertainment center, knocking to the floor an HDTV and a video game console. Once he realizes what’s happened, he might be able to pick it up and put it back, and maybe even plug everything in the same way, but as adults we know that won’t repair any damage caused by the accident. If he says, “Here, Mom, I made it better,” she’ll smile because of his naiveté, not because what he did actually made it better.
In this analogy, we are the six-year-olds, and God is the head-shaking mom. We don’t have enough knowledge or moral authority to truly atone for all the legal, emotional, and cosmic consequences of sin. Even the most morally upright among us, on our absolute best days, can’t even come close.
Now, in Old Testament days, they believed in restorative justice, but it was within a certain framework called “penal substitution.” If you did something wrong, you needed to sacrifice an animal, which acted as a surrogate to receive the penalty you should’ve gotten. It was a way of demonstrating the seriousness of sin and the importance of obeying God’s laws.
And because the Israelites were an agrarian society, there were rules about animal sacrifice. You couldn’t just take the ugliest, jankiest looking animal from your collection and sacrifice it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t really be a sacrifice; it’d be more like a favor (“Thanks for taking that one off my hands!”). No, you had to take the best one, the spotless one, the one that could sell for a lot of money—and that’s the one that would be sacrificed.
To conquer the power of sin—not just specific individual sins, but to atone for all sin, past, present, and future—God knew the only worthy sacrifice would be someone spotless, perfect, who had never sinned. And the only one who fit the bill was God Himself. So He decided to take on human form, and as Jesus, He allowed himself to be brutally sacrificed. When He supernaturally rose again, the power of sin and death was completely defeated.
This is what those verses from Ephesians are talking about. The salvation we received because of Jesus Christ dying on the cross we received as a gift. No one could earn such a tremendous honor. It’s only because God showed us tremendous mercy and undeserved favor, which we often refer to as grace.
So whether you’re a federal agent or just a regular schmo, the good news is still good! Grace is available, courtesy of a God who makes Himself available for all those who will receive Him. So we can all quit working so hard to earn it.
That kind of striving might be good for ratings, but bad for . . . y’know . . . life.