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USA's 'Graceland' uses South Florida to impersonate Southern California

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - It's long been a point of some annoyance and confusion for South Floridians when a television series set in their region — such as "CSI: Miami" or "Dexter" — is actually filmed in California.

But for the USA Network series "Graceland," the reverse is true. The show follows a group of six undercover agents from several federal law enforcement agencies living in a confiscated Southern California beach house known as Graceland. The show is actually filmed in the Fort Lauderdale area, though. After a successful first season, it's returning Wednesday.

The show is produced by Fox Television Studios, which previously filmed the USA Network series "Burn Notice" and the A&E network series "The Glades" in South Florida. With existing production infrastructure, along with state tax credits, faking Southern California in South Florida made good economic sense.

"We get more for our money in terms of our production budget," said Russell Fine, the show's producing director.

That doesn't mean it's always easy.

South Florida's tropical climate isn't a perfect match of Southern California's Mediterranean climate. Both have palm trees, but Fine said they have to avoid Florida's more jungle-like characteristics. Some architecture matches, but not all.

One big difference between the regions is terrain. While California mountains incongruously appear in the background of "CSI: Miami," those same mountains are conspicuously absent from "Graceland."

"There are a couple of large trash mounds — landfills — that we've actually used in the background when we needed a hill," Fine said.

Crews still film establishing shots in Southern California, so with some creative editing, Fine said most non-Floridians would never know.

"There's a little bit of slippage, but we're hoping that the story is strong enough so that's not what people are concentrating on," Fine said.

The story made its way to the small screen after the USA Network approached series creator Jeff Eastin. He previously created the network's hit show "White Collar."

"I had this desire to go back and do something darker," Eastin said.

USA shows, such as "White Collar," generally shy away from gritty subject matter, but "Graceland" features brutal slayings, fatal overdoses and protagonists committing legally and morally questionable acts. Eastin said the show's spark came from a real DEA agent who served as the handler for a Graceland-type house in Manhattan Beach, California.

"It was sort of an interesting take on a cop show that I hadn't seen before," Eastin said. "It really became about the relationships in this house. You have these people who live these incredibly dangerous lives. They could die at any time."

The second season picks up with FBI Agent Mike Warren — now an agency star — returning to Graceland to lead a mission against a Mexican drug cartel. Meanwhile, Warren's former mentor, Agent Paul Briggs, remains concerned about a missing recording that implicates him in a murder.

Actor Aaron Tveit, who plays Warren, said "Graceland" really started coming together as the first season closed, firmly establishing the show's style.

"The storytelling this season is much more character-driven, instead of necessarily a case of the week," Tveit said. "Everyone kind of sets off on these different character arcs, but they're all going to overlap."

Actor Daniel Sunjata, who plays Briggs, compared "Graceland" to his seven years on the FX network series "Rescue Me." While the firefighter drama was generally praised as a strong ensemble, Denis Leary was the unmistakable star. Though Sunjata and Tveit are the nominal stars of "Graceland," Sunjata said he's enjoyed seeing his "Graceland" co-stars' roles expand.

"We're writing to the other series regulars even more so than I experienced on 'Rescue Me,'" Sunjata said.

Actress Serinda Swan, who plays DEA Agent Paige Arkin, said "Graceland" works because it's a multidimensional group of people who have their own issues. The series also stars Vanessa Ferlito, Manny Montana and Brandon Jay McLaren.

"As we roll into the second season, you see relationships start to morph," Swan said. "You see other drama start to happen in the house, and there are a few very big players that come in the second season that kind of shake things up."

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