In the first episode of Graves, a new comedy that premiered on Sunday on the upstart cable channel Epix, former President Richard Graves (Nick Nolte) leaves the door open while he takes a piss. Standing outside the bathroom with Graves’s wife, his new assistant remarks, “That’s an intimidating stream.” It’s not our first hint at Graves’s roguish irreverence: The opening scene unfolds to the rough-and-tumble thud of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” a sonic red carpet for our leading man: A bad boy’s a-comin’!
Graves, created by Joshua Michael Stern and Greg Shapiro, presents a bald liberal fantasy: the contrite Republican. But the series feels tonally off for this particular political moment (which, to be fair, is unprecedented); Graves wants to grapple with crucial issues like immigration reform and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it also wants to keep things light ‘n’ breezy.
When we first see Graves, he’s giving the keynote at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at an assisted living facility for veterans in New Mexico (he lives on a stately ranch in Santa Fe). His supporters call him “the last great Republican to sit in the Oval Office”; his detractors call him the worst president in the history of the United States, thanks to the disastrous effects of his administration’s policies.
Despite his mixed reputation, Graves still rallies the Republican base; he’s trotted out like a mascot for this or that engagement, to his weary frustration. When Graves’ bright-eyed, bushy-tailed new assistant, Isaiah (Skylar Astin), begins to gush to his new boss’s wife, Margaret (Sela Ward), she stops him: “Don’t do that. Don’t romanticize. This isn’t fun.”
Several incidents in first episode prompt Graves’ journey of redemption After an aide mentions a Slate article designating him the worst president of all time, Graves spends the night Googling himself, tearing up as he reads one article after another on the damning consequences of his policies. He has another revelation when he visits his presidential library, not yet open to the public, and wanders the section featuring life-size pictures of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. “There were just kids. And I sent ’em to be slaughtered. Just slaughtered. And I don’t even remember why,” he muses. “It was genocide there,” Isaiah points out. “So is this,” Graves replies.
Finally, Graves spends the night smoking pot in the desert with Samantha (Callie Hernandez), the young, free-spirited waitress at his local diner, and wakes up a changed man. At a charity event for cancer research, he goes off book, admitting, “It was me who gutted federal credits for cancer research. Dying people don’t vote — that’s the dirty Washington calculus.” He proposes the government devote a fraction of its military spending to cancer research. “I’m awake now,” he concludes. “I’m wide awake.”
Graves attempts to locate its hero’s salvation in his humble sense of remorse. But throughout the first three episodes, the writers sprinkle a bit of casual, balls-out misogyny meant to indicate how folksy and real Graves is — shorthand for his newfound devotion to living an “authentic” life that veers a little too close to “locker-room talk.” When Isaiah tries to get his attention, he snaps, “Take your tampon out and relax.” In one episode, having shed his secret service detail, he, Isaiah, and Samantha — a kind of platonic manic pixie dream girl — go to a biker bar, where he buys all the tattooed, leather-clad patrons a round. “To nipples,” he declares, holding his drink aloft. “Without ’em, tits wouldn’t have a point!” Hear, hear.
In the second episode, Graves agrees to sit down for an interview with a newscaster and opines that George Washington would “blow his fucking brains out” if he saw how the country was handling immigration today. Off the cuff, he invites anyone who’s received a deportation notice to seek asylum at his Santa Fe compound; at the episode’s end, a convoy of nearly 300 undocumented immigrants speeds onto his property and sets up camp on his lawn. The third episode tracks Graves’s attempt to secure documentation for the immigrants — none of whom really become characters, aside from a smoldering Latin lover type who ends up sleeping with Graves’s daughter (Heléne Yorke), newly separated from her congressman husband.
The episode turns the undocumented immigrants into props for the sake of the Graves family’s enlightenment, even as Graves saves the day: He negotiates with the current administration to grant asylum to the immigrants — a largely symbolic victory that rings hollow.
There’s a little too much uplift on this series, an ill-advised impulse to keep it light. (Graves’s son has just returned from Afghanistan, where he quite literally served his country: He worked in food service operations, and didn’t see any real combat.) Tonally, it’s more in line with the aw-shucks idealism of The West Wing than the ballsy irreverence of Veep. Graves appears far more interested in celebrating the redemption of its gravelly-voiced, cool-dad hero than exploring the consequences of his administration’s policies — which might have resulted in sharper comedy.
Speaking at the cancer charity event in the first episode, Graves says, “Until we start forgiving ourselves for every bad decision we’ve ever made, we will be defined by our past, and nothing will ever be done.” And yet, coming as it does at this particular moment in American political history, Graves inadvertently indicates the limits of remorse. There is such a thing as too little, too late.
Graves airs at 10 p.m. on Sundays on Epix.