White Collar

[23 October 2009]

By Lesley Smith

Cappuccino in the Clouds

At first glance, White Collar seems like just another of USA’s odd-couple shows, in which FBI agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) teams reluctantly with art forger and convict Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) to solve white collar crimes. But don’t be deceived. Both make complicated tradeoffs to set up this relationship: Neal exchanges incarceration for a high-tech ankle bracelet and servitude to the FBI, while Peter frees the man he spent three years pursuing in order to catch more bad guys. And clever casting, fast-paced editing, and icy sharp writing haul the show from the doldrums of predictability.

The script—at least for the premiere episode, which airs 23 October on USA—excels at two levels. The crime-to-be-solved-in-50-minutes is intertwined with sufficient long-term storylines to craft an appealing emotional texture. This comprises the relationship between Peter and Neal, in which it’s not always clear who’s the cat and who’s the mouse. Each man has his own concerns. Neal misses his girlfriend, who apparently abandoned New York, and him, for San Diego, where she lives under the name “Perdue” (French for “lost”). His efforts to find her lead to an ATM photo in which a man’s hand, wearing a distinctive pinkie ring, rests on her shoulder. Miss the reference, and it doesn’t fundamentally alter the trajectory of the show. Catch the reference, and it’s one more Ariadne-like thread to follow through the series. Peter’s marriage to Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen) is slightly more mundane: two adults deal with harried lives, too little time together, and the predictability that settles on two astute individuals living together for 10 years.

Aside from knotted plotting, the script also delivers one good line after another, including references to the Rat Pack (where the “Dino” comparison aptly captures Neal’s light-hearted façade and darker repose) and discussions of the folkloric antecedents to Disney’s Snow White and the existence of pop culture prior to Steamboat Willie. Other dialogue subtly exposes personal details: as Peter justifies knowing more about a criminal than his wife because that’s his job, the aridity of a two-career marriage flashes across his face. For a moment, he reflects the fear of loss that haunts every professional who finds intense intellectual satisfaction outside of home and family. 

DeKay’s intelligent performance seals this moment. When Peter arouses the ire of the Canadian authorities, his quip that they are “as upset as Canadians can get” comes fast and with a lopsided smile, the line almost gone before it registers as a joke. Bomer is a worthy partner for DeKay, so that Neal gains through physical charm what he loses by being on the wrong end of Peter’s sharp tongue. When Neal preens after probationer FBI agent Lauren (Natalie Morales) admires his ‘50s-style fedora, Burke snaps, “She’d rather be wearing the hat.” Without a word, Neal shrugs, sidesteps, and moves on, charmingly confident. With his sexy widowed grandmother June (Diahann Carroll) or during a tete-a-tete with Elizabeth, Neal displays a comfort with intimacy that makes his long run of criminal successes entirely believable.

Director Bronwen Hughes, fresh from Burn Notice and Royal Pains, keeps such exchanges refreshingly short, underlining the energy pulsing between characters. (Sometimes scenes end too abruptly, with the quick fade to black serving as an all-purpose transition.) The show benefits as well from its lack of exposition, focus on present action, and a ruthless economy of editing rarely seen on primetime TV. The challenge for White Collar will be to live up to this terrific first episode.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/115135-white-collar/