The home stretch of the most [your adjective here] presidential campaign ever is a strange time to encounter “Graves,” a new Epix series about a beloved former Republican president, called Richard Graves and played by Nick Nolte, who decides he could have done a better job.
It is made no less strange by the fact that nearly the first person we see onscreen is former New York Mayor and current Donald Trump megaphone Rudolph Giuliani. “Mr. President, I don’t understand why you’re so hard on yourself,” says Giuliani. “What’s done is done. For all of us.”
He is including in this group former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson – we are in New Mexico, in fact, where the TV production tax credits are not cloudy all day – who is riding in a limousine alongside Giuliani and Graves after a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Graves is tired and full of growling self-doubt, fed up with photo ops and being trotted out “like some old relic in storage they can wheel out once a year, year after year.”
Like Ronald Reagan, whose two administrations his would seem to chronologically parallel, Graves is a horse-riding Westerner who survived an assassination attempt and is remembered by some as an inspiration and others as the person who gutted the nation. (“Gravenomics” is one of his legacies.) And like each President Bush, he sent the country to war.
Now he lives in a desert villa under the combined care of his practical, plugged-in proactive wife Margaret (Sela Ward), secretaries, servants and secret agents. (Ernie Hudson, Roger Bart and Tania Gunadi are among this crowd.) Soon to join them will be daughter Olivia (Heléne Yorke), who has marked her husband’s infidelity by blow-torching obscenities into the furniture and walls of their apartment; son Jeremy (Chris Lowell), getting out of the army; and Graves’ upright, uptight new assistant, Isaiah (Skylar Astin), a lifelong believer taking up his dream assignment.
“Don’t romanticize,” Margaret warns him. “This isn’t fun.”
One night Graves goes down an Internet click-hole of his own bad press, which brings tears to his eyes. And after he drinks tequila with the kids of undocumented immigrants at his gardener’s daughter’s quinceañera; faces a stage full of children with cancer; and gets high with Samantha (Callie Hernandez), the new, tattooed waitress from the Santa Fe coffee shop he frequents, he will come to see that some of his policies were more hurtful than helpful, and like Scrooge, seeing himself anew, resolve to lead a better life.
“I’ve done some really, really terrible things,” he tells Samantha.
“OK,” she says. “So now you can go and do some really really good things.” And he will become, essentially, Jimmy Carter in his post-presidency.
“I’m awake now,” he declares, “I’m wide awake.” (He’s “woke,” as the kids say.) Comedy, of an earnestly meaningful sort, will ensue.
Still, in spite of the “as themselves” cameos – also including appearances by former RNC Chairman Michael Steele and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Jake Tapper, “Graves” does not feel in the least a plausible picture of the political world; created by Joshua Michael Stern (director and co-author of the Kevin Costner film “Swing Vote”) it’s a fable, a fairy tale. Much of it is loose and improbable and thin, strung together out of old tropes from the Old Trope Box: the powerful man down, happy among the disreputable simple folk; the uptight dude chasing after the impulsive person whose influence will make him a looser one; the stray remark that sparks a movement.
Like “Veep,” its talk is salty, but it has heart, or in any case wants yours. It is cynical enough, vaguely, about politics to suggest that it takes an outsider to do things right, a notion that does fit the temper of the times. But it does not go deep.
And yet in its moments, “Graves” can be quite persuasive, even moving. (It can be corny too, but corn can work.) Growling and grumbling like a spokesperson for phlegm as he takes Graves from childishness to youthfulness, Nolte finds everything touching in his character, and makes you feel it too. And he’s well paired with Ward, whose character happily is not written as a Lady Macbeth type, though for years she has been running their mutual show. Their love, if not much else here, feels real.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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