Series Premiere: White Collar – “Pilot”



October 23rd, 2009

There has been much talk of late about whether or not NBC, in crafting a new strategy that actually creates programming that people are interested in watching, will be looking to their corporate sibling USA in order to discover the elusive secrets. The cable channel has been on a roll of late, with successful procedurals like Monk and Psych have been joined by Burn Notice and Royal Pains. Their shows vary in quality (I much like Burn Notice, but became burnt out on Monk and Psych – jury’s still out on the summer’s Royal Pains), but their success has become a foregone conclusion in the same way that the failure of NBC shows has become the status quo.

White Collar is the latest show to join this stable, and at first glance it is also one of their best. Borrowing heavily from Catch Me if You Can and Burn Notice, the show eschews explosions in favour of a more sly sort of series. Rather than following someone applying professional skills in an amateur setting (Michael Westen, in a nutshell), the show is the story of someone who has made a living working against the system but now finds himself of value to the very man who put him in jail.

What results is a show that some could argue simply checks off the boxes for how a USA procedural should operate, but one which does it with a sense of style that makes it pretty tough to resist.

I’ve liked Matthew Bomer since his work on ABC’s Traveler, but it was really on Chuck where he started to make me understand his particular brand of charm. On that show, we weren’t supposed to like Bryce Larkin – he was standing in the way of the guy getting the girl, and he was a potentially dirty agent in the process. And Bomer is capable of making someone unlikable, capable of depicting someone who is slimy and untrustworthy. However, what made Bryce such an intriguing character is that there was something (even before the show introduced backstory that ingratiated us to the character) about Bomer’s performance that didn’t add up. There was something below the surface that you trusted, and while you always sensed that it was just a ploy there was something about it which seemed too genuine to be an act.

As such, his casting here makes perfect sense, as Neal Caffrey is a character who made his living as a Frank Abagnale Jr.-type, making forgeries and crafting “something for nothing” schemes that had him eluding the Feds for three years before he was captured by Agent Burke (Tim DeKay) and sentenced to the same length of time in prison. That we meet him escaping prison immediately sets up the show’s central dilemma: as much as he was breaking the law in that circumstance, he was doing it with a confidence that established that we are supposed to like this person, a task made easier by the electric quality Bomer seems to have.

It also helps that the episode, from that point, does everything in its power to turn Neal into a legitimate hero, as opposed to some sort of anti-hero. His escape from prison wasn’t just entertaining, but came at the end of his sentence and was a move made out of love for his girlfriend who was in the process of leaving him under mysterious circumstances (that form the basis for the show’s ongoing mythology). Once he is released from prison (so he can consult on a particularly difficult forgery case), his violation of the GPS perimeter he has been allowed is played for either comedy (showing up at Burke’s house and chatting with his wife in the living room) or as part of the case itself (when he eventually figures out that his bracelet contains the solution to their warrant issue).

The show uses it all to play off of that stereotype of the white collar criminal, the felon who is less a harm to society and more a self-destructive personality who fell on hard times often enough to resort to desperate measures that eventually landed them in jail. It seems that everyone sympathizes with Neal to some degree: June (Diahann Carroll in a guest appearance) sees part of her husband (also a felon, as it turns out) in him, as she offers him a guest room and a collection of rat pack-era clothing as opposed to his dive of a hotel provided by the FBI, and even Burke’s wife finds him charming enough to allow onto her couch and share stories of their past. And, of course, in the Abagnale tradition, Burke sympathizes with Neal in a way that only the agent who caught him can, and their dynamic is less one of conflict than it is of a mutual respect that by law needs to be tempered by tension.

The actual plot of the episode offers nothing that other procedurals haven’t done before, a feeling not entirely helped by the presence of Mark Sheppard, who at this point must have been on every procedural imaginable (the “hip” ones, at least). But there is a lot of potential in these more high-end cases, ones which offer less firepower but considerably opportunities for Caffrey’s more subtle skill set to take over. The plot demonstrates, though, how this is not just a smug felon who gets off on using his skills: he seems legitimately interested in catching the guy, and perhaps more importantly he is on occasion shot down (as he learns that he isn’t quite on Diane’s dance card) and forced to look to others for help (as a former contact appears in the dark, albeit after having been invited inside). There’s some diversity to be had here, and more than one dynamic which could be engaging on a weekly basis.

The one flaw the show has, though, is the presence of Tiffani (Amber) Thiesen as Burke’s wife Elizabeth. It’s not that Thiesen’s acting is that hideously bad, although there are points where she is perhaps weak enough for me to make note of the fact (even if other critics/bloggers hadn’t prepared me for it). The problem with the character is that she doesn’t add anything to the show, or at least the actual content of the show. Her relationship with her husband is simple and plain, a source of some stability and some anxiety, but the role has been so underwritten that it just seems like a distraction. There was an opportunity to provide greater  to one of the show’s lead character with the role, and instead it’s been underwritten to the point where anyone could have played this part (which makes you wonder why Thiesen was cast, but that’s a different discussion). It’s the one element of the show that feels like it hasn’t been carefully considered, and as such the one element I’m looking to see improve in the future.

And yes, this show will enter into my regular rotation – while, like other procedurals like The Mentalist, it’ll take a particular great episode for me to write a review, I’m definitely going to be playing along. With Dollhouse out of commission for November, though, I might drop in a review every now and then as the show continues its setup for the season ahead and, if USA’s patterns hold, many seasons to come.

Cultural Observations

  • Seriously, people, Matthew Bomer’s blue eyes are almost terrifying. I saw a lot of subway ads for the show when I was in New York, and the episode (and other photos taken of Bomer) demonstrate that it wasn’t some sort of photoshop trick: they’re just eyes that you can get lost in, period.
  • Interesting to see how the show plays the romance card when they introduce June’s granddaughter, and yet Neal is largely without romantic consequence in such scenarios – he flirts with Diane to try to get his way, just as he lies to the Priest to get into the church, but he can’t actually turn into a ladies man when his girlfriend (and the mysterious man who has found her, conveniently at the exact time that photo was taken) is constantly in his mind.
  • Mozzie, Neal’s informant of sorts, is introduced in a fun manner, but I like that Neal’s first question is whether he could pick the GPS locator – the show needed to at least address that point, and while technology won’t hold him forever it is the kind of thing that at least needs to be handled in a pilot.
  • I didn’t like most of the wife stuff, but the dog eating from the table made it all a bit more tolerable, as tends to happen when cute dogs appear on screen. Not a coincidence, people.

1 Comment

Filed under White Collar

One response to “Series Premiere: White Collar – “Pilot”

  1. As a Spanish teacher, I am curious whether such Spanish Victory bonds with the Goya painting ever existed. If so what was their purpose?

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