'Graceland' Creator Promises 'Cleaner' Mysteries and 'Sexier' Season 2 (Q&A)

Showrunner Jeff Eastin talks to THR about the new season, why he's simplifying the show and lessons learned from last year.
Jeff Daly/USA Network

Graceland is opening its doors for another season.

USA Network's undercover agent drama kicks off a 12-episode run, with star FBI agent Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit) establishing himself in Washington, D.C. But, he quickly finds himself returning to the familiar confines of Graceland, the beachside abode he left, when past troubles begin to circle back around. Graceland's first season was rocky at times and creator-showrunner Jeff Eastin reassures that the new episodes are an attempt to simplify arcs.

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"We're trying to go darker, sexier, more linear and cleaner with the storylines, and smarter, and not get too bogged down in the details," Eastin tells The Hollywood Reporter. In a chat with THR, he previews the sophomore season, why he's simplifying the mystery and the new state of the house.

What was your takeaway from season one that helped in your approach this year?

One thing was that we really spent a lot of time with Daniel [Sunjata] and Aaron [Tveit] in season one – Briggs and Mike are interesting together – but we also have a really good cast, so we decided to embrace the ensemble concept this year. The other thing was there were some real challenges with the serialization of the story, but what we felt worked was the serialized nature of it, that it was less the case of the week and more about the characters’ interactions. We fully embraced that this year, where there’s no case of the week. There’s one big case, and almost every guest actor this year has a four-episode arc. Another thing was to make the show sexier -- not necessarily showing more skin which we have this year, but sexy in the sense of the physical and mental relationships. The last thing was to go darker with the show. I just watched episodes six and nine, and things go really dark – these would be dark even for FX or HBO.

Were there specific things you wanted to move away from this year?

It was more about deciding the things that worked very well and embracing them more or never tried before. We wanted to play more in terms of the house and its relationship with the characters. One of our best episodes last year was episode three where they go investigate some pot farmers. One of the things we wished we would've done more was play more into that and the intimate nature of the house. Without that, it's just another show about people solving crime. Another was simplifying. We did quite a big buildup and one of the smart things [NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment president and chief content officer and former USA co-president] Jeff Wachtel said was as we move forward, we should be expanding possibilities, the audiences should have more choices and then as the season begins to close, we should begin collapsing those possibilities. Last year we should've maybe expanded things out in an extra episode, so we ended up cramming a lot of material in at the end.

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The ratings in season one weren't quite as splashy as USA must have hoped. Was the simplification of this new season a direct response to that?

Not really, I gotta say. USA's been incredibly supportive of the show. I worried about our numbers a little bit. The awareness numbers are really high, the video-on-demand and second-viewing numbers were very high, so USA seemed very happy. For USA, it was a challenge, in the current marketplace, to get people to watch it live. To their credit, they considered it more of a marketing challenge instead of a creative challenge. They've been good about not trying to be reactive to everything, but just pushing hard to keep the show as something I conceived it as.

USA is now more seriously getting into darker fare, with shows like Rush and Satisfaction coming down the pike.

I give them credit for saying we have to evolve the network. A few years ago, when USA was No. 1, it really was that blue-skies thing was working. Since then I think viewers have changed and cable has gone darker and creatively, USA has been great to me. They haven't been reactive at all. The last thing I want is Graceland to exist on its own creepy, dark island in the middle of nowhere.

How are you differentiating Graceland this season so it cuts through? Do you feel pressure to maintain that high-intensity storytelling on a week-to-week basis? There seems to be an uptick in major character deaths in the past year.

I don't feel the pressure, to USA's credit. We haven't had any pressures to kill off any of our characters. (Laughs.) I've got some of the writers want to constantly do it. I'm not a fan of killing off major characters. The Shield, maybe one of my favorite series of all time, when they killed Lem with the hand grenade, I took a year hiatus. I wouldn't watch the show. For us, it was not necessarily being pushed into darker territory, it was naturally evolving into who these people were. If Graceland was paired with White Collar, it would be a weird viewing experience.

But now that Graceland is paired with Suits, which could be considered on the same tonal wavelength, do you think that helps?

They said, "Look, we believe in this show. We really like this show." Creatively they keep telling us "We love this." Every week we're like, "Really? It's pretty dark." And they're like, "Don't change. Let us figure out how to get people to the show." I can't ask for more as a showrunner.

One of the new characters coming in is Emily Rose's D.C. superior Jessica Foster. What does she add to the show?

We were trying to evolve Mike a little bit. Paige will represent Graceland, the warmth, the friendship. Jessica represents D.C., which is a little colder, more manipulative world. And to pigeon-hole Mike in between those two worlds. After two episodes, Jessica makes her way down to Graceland, and Mike's got the two women to contend with there which puts him in a tight bind. What's his decision when he realizes where his heart really lies? Maybe Graceland's the place he really wants to be.

Mike's again coming into Graceland as an outsider, but this time he has history with his former roommates. How is his perspective on Graceland changed now that he's been out of it for a lengthy period of time?

We spent a lot of time trying to figure that out. We wanted to imply that time had passed. When Mike comes back, there's a new guy in his place. Most people go through at some time, where things haven't really changed but they have completely for you. For Mike, it's when he sees that somebody's replaced him with "New Mike" and then it's "Better Mike." There's a little pain of realizing that you can be replaced really quickly and really easily, and creates this sense of Mike who's really between worlds and who doesn't have a place right now. Mike's slowly evolving into Briggs and he really tries to take over the alpha-male role that Briggs has voluntarily vacated by putting on the white hat this year. Those two things are going to come into conflict.

Briggs trying to stay on the up-and-up isn't going to last very long. Is that fair to say?

The tape is a slow burn this season. The tape represents Briggs' sin and that always live with you. I can say without giving away spoilers is that Briggs decides the best way to help Charlie is to help this woman, Juan's widow Kelly, and to help himself. It's safe to say it goes horribly f---ing wrong.

Graceland premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on USA.

Email: Philiana.Ng@THR.com
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