'Graves': TV Review

Graves S01E01 Still - Publicity - H 2016
Lewis Jacobs

Graves S01E01 Still - Publicity - H 2016

Will likely get buried.

Epix breaks into original comedy with a growling Nick Nolte playing a former Republican president who realizes the error of his political ways.

We like to point at before-and-after photos of presidents that contrast their appearance when they begin their terms and when they leave office, giggling at the toll taken by one of the hardest jobs in the free world: dark hair gone shock-white, fake smiles grown slack from overuse, posture devolved from rigid to hunched. It's the presidency and the damage done.

Graves, a new political comedy premiering Sunday as part of Epix's first push into the scripted space, is all about that damage. Richard Graves is embodied by star Nick Nolte as something sepulchral. A former president long gone to pasture in New Mexico, Graves had two terms in the White House, depicted Veep-style largely through headlines and old news clippings that document an administration marked by war, economic ruin and critical lambasting (as well as Nolte's passage from People's "Sexiest Man of 1992" to something else).

"I'm like some old relic in storage," Graves says to his starstruck new assistant Isaiah (Skylar Astin), but it's rare that Graves "says" anything. At best, you might claim Graves' utterances are like "growls," but even that fails to capture how entirely Nolte's voice is the star of Graves. If cigarettes, whiskey and regret could make a sound, they would be the sound of Nolte speaking.

I don't know what Yeats' "rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born" looks like, but he would sound like Nolte. Tom Waits would probably be impressed by how rough and weathered Nolte's voice is. Hearing Nolte unnerves The Cryptkeeper. Like a seismic force, Nolte's voice starts in the earth's core and bursts through cracks and fissures, a sonic magma of sorrow and unease.

This thing that Nolte's voice is, it's been becoming that thing for years and from Affliction to Luck to Gracepoint, he's taken superlative recent advantage of being difficult to listen to. It's a voice designed to say things characters don't want to admit, that people don't want to hear. But his ability to get laughter from this instrument, an ability that yielded such fine rewards in vehicles like 48 Hrs. and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, may have passed. It's a voice designed to be a punchline, but not to deliver punchlines.

Graves, created by Joshua Michael Stern (2013's JobsSwing Vote), tries to get laughs in its third episode (the last sent to critics and the first not written and directed with limited voice and style by Stern) from a character at a biker bar mimicking the former president and, in turn, Nolte — but that only serves to emphasize that this series is two (or possibly more) different and incompatible shows.

There's a drama, or maybe even a dark comedy about a world leader, 25 years out of power, now powerless and lamenting the choices he made, realizing in deep retrospect the errors of his ways and trying to correct those errors. Nolte would surely be a terrific lead for that sort of show, but Graves' need for repentance is initially reduced to the Republican experiencing self-disgust with one piece of conservative orthodoxy after another. It's a left-wing fantasy of a Ronald Reagan seeking penance for disastrously mishandling the initial spread of AIDS. It's a Bush or Cheney admitting to errors in Middle Eastern aggression and trying to set things right. The third episode is the first that doesn't feel like a liberal writing the apology he would have wanted to get from Republican politicians, and it's the first that doesn't feel overtly and painfully hacky.

And so much of the first two Graves episodes comes across as hacky, from Graves' on-the-nose introduction set to "Sympathy for the Devil," a magnificent song that badly needs to be confiscated from music supervisors, to clichéd Grumpy Old Men dialogue like "That's why I don't go online — opinions are like assholes and they all stink" to cameos from real-life politicians like Bill Richardson or Rudy Guiliani or Michael Steele, who have to be loudly introduced for the sake of the audience. Graves is unquestionably politically aware, but it's neither politically smart nor, despite the hero's arc, all that politically reflective. Nolte has moments of grounded sadness that are nearly effective, but there's no way for those moments to stick when the show keeps undermining both his dignity and whatever dignity Graves once had.

A more sitcom-y incarnation of Graves keeps encroaching on Nolte's believable torment, a version that's probably in the vein of the George C. Scott White House dud Mr. President, part of Fox's original programming slate back in 1987 and a show you don't remember for a very good reason. Leading that unfortunate version of Graves is Astin, who's giving a performance of flailing, nebbishy extremes. There are shades of a 21st century Alex P. Keaton in Astin's obsequious Isaiah, but if nobody else is scouring the scripts looking for punchlines this aggressively it stands out, especially if the punchlines are rarely funny. Little of Astin's hero-worshipping character feels believably developed in the first three episodes, a problem that also plagues Callie Hernandez's Samantha, a barely sketched-out free-spirited waitress role that taps into none of the eye-popping charisma Hernandez exhibits in her fleeting turn in this winter's Oscar favorite La La Land.

The only chuckles I got from the first three Graves episodes came from Chris Lowell, as the president's prodigal son returned home from a stint in the military (fueling nostalgia for Lowell's late, lamented Enlisted). There's a chance that Lowell's precision sarcasm, a weapon that film and TV have only sometimes figured out how to properly wield, might eventually prove a better foil for Nolte's growl than Astin's out-of-place mugging. There's also a chance that Sela Ward, as former first lady Margaret Graves, might become more than a confused and exasperated TV wife.

Graves hits the small screen as we're finally nearing the end of an election season that has made it nearly impossible for political fiction to play more outlandishly than political reality. Not quite a Capra-esque redemption fable, not quite a satirical lampoon and rarely the vehicle to capitalize on Nolte's many strengths, the show about the toll of the presidency made very little impact on me.

Cast: Nick Nolte, Sela Ward, Skylar Astin, Heléne Yorke, Chris Lowell, Callie Hernandez
Creator: Joshua Michael Stern
Premieres Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Epix)