White Collar – “Flip of the Coin”

WhiteCollarTitle

“Flip of the Coin”

November 14th, 2009

Now four weeks into its run, White Collar is about where it was in its pilot: a solid entry in USA’s lineup. The show has yet to really transcend to the point where I would say it’s really growing into something new, or where it’s establishing a more complex identity, which isn’t problematic so much as it is perhaps a sign of the show being unwilling to go to that stage so quickly.

There are some growing pains, however, in terms of how the episode wants its stories to work and how they’re actually capable of working. “Flip of the Coin” has a couple of nice set pieces in it, along with some high quality guest stars to help bolster the episode, but it struggles to make all of that come together. There are some scenes where Neal’s suave nature feels perfectly at home in the context of these investigations, and other sequences where the believability is stripped away for the sake of convenience.

Still, there’s a lot of enjoyment within this episode, to the point where some of the shortcuts are ultimately overcome by one development in particular that could help the show going forward.

The best single scene in this episode is the sequence where, trapped outside of the office without credentials after Peter sees him flirting with a young publicist, Neal takes things into his own hands. He uses his wits to use the coffee as an excuse to both get past the security guard and to avoid questions from the anchors, his charms in order to learn of the 12:30 meeting and eventually get a photo copier code, and his skills in order to break into Alisha’s drawer and get the pawn shop receipt. The scene is very much something that Michael Westen would do, albeit using a bit less sex appeal and a bit more character work, but this is ultimately a compliment: there is room for another show that has elements of Burn Notice’s sense of humour and its sense of ingenuity, and this was the sort of sequence of events that stretches believability (the sports anchor part of the equation was a weak link) but in a way that highlights the show’s stylistic qualities.

Unfortunately, there are other points where the show isn’t capable of doing the same, and you can see the machinations a little bit too clearly. Having the accused’s wife happen to be friends with Elizabeth is unapologetically an excuse to involve her in the case, and even if I liked what it ended up accomplishing (giving Peter a reason to avoid going home and thus a reason to spend more time with Neal) it still seemed a bit preposterous. The same goes for Agent Cruz, who is revealed to have written her Quantico thesis about Neal; her chemistry with Neal didn’t need her entire identity to be fashioned in terms of the other characters (intrigued by Neal, looking up to Burke), and would have in fact been more interesting if we had learned something about her as an individual, unrelated to the protagonists.

And there are times when this goes beyond character beats to the plot itself, like the sequence where Neal “traps” Alisha into appearing on camera. There was nothing elegant about that sequence, as one has to believe that either a) someone would have recognized him from the days before and flagged him as a security risk for faking the anchor job or b) the producers would have vetted him to the point of realizing what was up. If they had shown us how the FBI had arranged it with the producers to catch her, that’s fine, but the whole point was that they had no real evidence so that’s impossible. By not showing us how Neal got from Point A to Point B, you miss out on the fun of the earlier scene while maintaining all of the logical questions about the event. I get why the scene exists, as it allows the show to transition from investigation to sting operation, but it was handled in a way that shows the shortcuts the show can take.

Overall, though, I thought the episode was quite good for two reasons. The first is that it had some nice talent in front of and behind the camera, with the always dependable Garret Dillahunt playing Ames and Sarah Wynter (who was last seen with her real accent on the best episode of Flight of the Conchords’ second season) playing Alisha, all directed by Timothy Busfeld (The West Wing, Studio 60). Sure, none of them got a whole lot to do, but it gains a lot of good will for strong casting.

The other element is that we finally got to see Burke, Caffery and Moz interacting for the first time. The idea that Burke meets Moz, knowing him only as Mr. Haversham, is a strong one for the series because it allows for a better sense of teamwork between them. If Moz is only helping Neal, it further separates the two men, but I like the idea that they’re a team and that Moz’s less than legal way of investigating things can be a help to the team even without necessarily falling into a traditional investigation. It also helped bolster the final sequence, which was fun in terms of Neal’s history lessons and Cruz’s willingness to have Neal die but became great in Moz’s reluctant running over of Ames in order to stop the gunfight before it could really happen. His “I was never here” while sipping champagne was just a lot of fun, and the more the show can achieve that the better.

Cultural Observations

  • Considering the glut of foreign correspondents who are based in the U.S., couldn’t Wynter have used her real accent? I know the character might not have been written that way, but it would have been a pretty easy fix, no?
  • We got yet another tiny tidbit regarding Neal’s search for his lost love, although worked into the middle of the episode rather than the beginning. I’ll be curious to see whether that story every takes a more active role before some kind of finale, as it’s really stayed in the background up until this point.
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