Since 2009 Epix has been your third-tier pay-cable destination for post-theatrical movies (sliding in somewhere behind HBO, Showtime and the others). Having saturated the market on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull reruns, Epix has decided it’s time to move up a rung and, like its competition, start producing original series. While it’s not quite ready to spit out the next “Game of Thrones,” it’s launched an interesting opening salvo with the spy series “Berlin Station” and the political dramedy “Graves,” both of which premiere this week.
Iconic screen actor Nick Nolte stars in “Graves,” as the titular Richard Graves, a former American president on the edge of a life-changing crisis. Graves is a staunchly Conservative Republican, some 25 years out of office. Long retired from politics, he’s now living on a sprawling ranch outside Santa Fe with his hard-as-nails wife Margaret (Sela Ward). He’s portrayed as one of those John Wayne types, the white-hat-wearing frontiersman image that Republicans have tried to project ever since Ronald Reagan ambled in office. But his legacy is far closer to that of George W. Bush. While in office, President Graves tanked the economy, started two lengthy wars and is generally considered to be the worst president in history.
One sunny day, for no particular reason, our protagonist wakes up and has a sudden epiphany that his reputation is for shit. (An impression no-doubt enhanced by a session of drunkenly Googling his name.) The timing of this sudden self-realization is particularly bad for the president’s new assistant, Isaiah Miller (Skylar Astin). This starry-eyed young conservative is in awe of Graves, but his first day on the job is spent chasing him around New Mexico as he melts down, smokes weed and decides to more or less trash his long-standing public persona.
“Graves” is a bitterly funny look at an aging man who figures out that he’s maybe spent most of his life being a jerk. Graves is still a jerk, but he’s starting to feel bad about all the things he could have done but didn’t—and all the things he shouldn’t have but did. A legacy is a hard thing to pull off for anyone, let alone a president, who carries the burden of the entire free world on his shoulders. Shuffling through his presidential library and looking at a memorial for all the men and women who died in the wars he started, Graves realizes it’s time for a change. Maybe he can use his currently rather pointless celebrity to do some good in this world. Only time (and the show’s creators) will tell how far he’ll go in this quixotic quest.
In the first couple episodes, the show teeter-totters between melancholy drama and brutally honest humor—like Network, but slightly less suicidal. Assorted guest appearances (Joan Lunden, Rudy Giuliani) give the whole thing an air of ripped-