“Out of the Box”
March 9th, 2010
White Collar is what I would call a premise procedural. While it eventually falls into a rhythm of crime-solving like other procedurals, it starts with a central premise or setup that remains unresolved in order to provide the show its tension and its “added value” beyond the formula. For Burn Notice, it’s Michael’s never-ending quest to figure out who burned him, and for White Collar it’s Neal Caffrey’s quest to reunite with his beloved Kate. To some extent, both shows have their characters just killing time, waiting until the beginning and end of each episode where they will make incremental progress on their broader search.
What keeps White Collar from ascending to the level of Burn Notice is that, by and large, I don’t “buy” its premise. The same thing has happened with Burn Notice over time, as we reach the point where we wonder why Michael Westen doesn’t realize that he has a woman he loves, a mother who loves him, and a loyal best friend in Miami which give him more than enough reason to leave the whole “burn” mess alone. But with White Collar, it was sort of there from the beginning, with too many questions about Kate’s loyalty (and, frankly, her fundamental lack of personality) and the trustworthiness of Fowler’s plot to make it seem like we should be rooting for this reunion.
The show has always been at its best when Peter and Neal are friends, not enemies, and when Neal is a charismatic crime solver rather than a lovestruck idiot with enormous blinders to all sorts of logical concerns with his plan. As such, “Out of the Box” struggles to reflect what has made the show a pleasant experience over its first season, trapped in conflict and false goodbyes that we know will return us to the status quo, just as Michael Westen remains in the dark about who burned him.
At the least, though, White Collar seems to realize that things needed to be shaken up, and they’ve taken some intriguing (if predictable) steps to perhaps set the show on a better path heading into its second season.
I was in the rare circumstance of having conversations about television in real life this week, and one of them was about White Collar. In the process of that conversation, I was reminded of the fact that my greatest initial concern about the show was Tiffani Thiessen’s character, Elizabeth Burke. The show, I thought, was about Neal and Peter, and the idea of Peter having a life “separate” from that would only be a distraction from the show’s real potential. On the other hand, though, I had no real concerns about Neal having his own separate life, as it made sense for the characters to deal with conflicting emotions surrounding his new position with the FBI.
In the end, I got it backwards. Elizabeth, through some nice subtle performances from Thiessen and some great writing, has managed to integrate into the cast more than I had ever anticipated. Neal’s lack of boundaries as it relates to Peter’s life, and Elizabeth’s willingness to allow Neal and Mozzie into her home, have made the Burke household part of the show’s universe, and has actually helped create an easygoing dynamic to their investigations to keep them from feeling too bogged down by bureaucracy or policy. This isn’t The Wire, and the idea that this partnership is a little out of the ordinary is helped by Elizabeth’s openness to her husband’s plans; rather than a simple tool to ground Peter, Elizabeth has become quite fiery in her own way, and after a couple of early attempts to blatantly write cases around her the show fell into a rather nice rhythm. In “Out of the Box,” the invasion of Elizabeth’s business isn’t just Fowler getting at Peter: we see Neal guilty about what he put Elizabeth through, we see Neal setting things right with Elizabeth, and we see Elizabeth as a character in her own right even when the plot is far beyond her pay grade (or screen time, considering her “and” credit). I didn’t expect that would happen, and I commend the show for that.
On the other hand, I think that Neal’s story sprung a few leaks as the season went along. That he would so blindly follow Kate is convenient but unrealistic, especially once Alex arrived and was more attractive, more interesting, and also less evasive and secretive. Natalie Morales’ character was entirely uninteresting, but even she seemed a more credible conquest than the rarely seen Kate, and for Neal to ignore all of that felt like it existed only because of that initial premise. It seemed like the character was held hostage by the show, to some extent, and it also felt like the show was held hostage by the premise when it came time to do episodes like this one. While Burn Notice is often at its best when it really delves into Michael’s problems with the law or his identity crisis, it seemed like Neal just looked like a fool every time they returned to Kate, and while his capers could be entertaining there was no legitimate motivation for the audience to root for. I’ve been given no evidence of Kate being worth all this trouble, so to hear everyone saying this to Neal and to have Neal ignore them has begun to grow dangerously thin.
“Out of the Box” struggles under the weight of my ongoing concerns over that side of things, but succeeds for the same reason that it also fails. By taking the episode to the point where Neal is saying goodbye to everyone, it becomes both resonant and entirely unsuspenseful. I’m aware this sounds like a contradiction, but that’s the thing: while we know that Neal won’t be getting on that plane, and we can pretty much predict that it’s going to explode at some point before Neal gets near it, the process of getting there had Neal and Elizabeth’s great scene, a strong moment with Moz and Neal parting ways, and the nice tension between Peter and Neal about saying goodbye. While past “premise” episodes have placed Neal and Peter against one another, note that this episode avoids it by having Peter’s badge taken away, and having Neal basically tell Peter what he is planning to do once Peter suspects something is up. There is never any question about Neal’s loyalties so much as there are questions about Neal’s future, which makes this less about simple questions of trust and more about how Neal sees his future, and how Peter has come to see Neal differently, and those kinds of questions that actually relate to the characters dynamics we’ve seen between them all year.
The decisions that they make at the end of the episode are not, of course, the end of the “premise” that the show began with. However, it is a sign that the writers know that Neal’s motivations were muddled and confusing before, and so we get a much simpler (and, for fans of CBS’ The Mentalist, very familiar) premise: rather than Neal trying to reunite with his one true love, he’s out to avenge her death at the hands of some mysterious figure deep in the FBI. The Mentalist is perhaps one of the smoothest premise procedurals on television right now in that Simon Baker can pull off both effortless charm and small moments of drama when required in order to reflect his characters’ grief and desire for vengeance over his wife and daughter’s murder at the hands of the villainous Red John. I think Matthew Bomer is capable of the same, and I think it makes sense that Neal would return to the FBI (to remain close to the perpetrator and to keep himself busy to avoid falling into a pit of despair), if only after a premiere where Peter has to bring him back into the fold and rescue him from himself.
I think that has the show on a smarter trajectory, and the addition of Marsha Thomason (and the elimination of Natalie Morales’ character, if not the actress) demonstrates a desire to make the FBI side of things more interesting, considering that the show itself never quite got close to the Pilot’s tense interactions between Neal and Diana. If we accept that the show is never going to stop becoming a procedural, and even argue that the show is far better off when unconnected to the “premise” that motivates our protagonist, then all we can do is hope that premise is worthwhile, and that the show works towards finding the right balance. There were some rough patches early in the season, and to some extent “Out of the Box” failed to live up to the show’s best moments since it was so focused on the “big picture,” but the events it sets into motion promise to keep things interesting when the second season begins.
And after a solid but uneven freshman season, that’s a little bit surprising if not at all unpleasant.
- I wonder if it has ever happened before that a show has started with one actress in the pilot, written off their character and replaced them with a similar one, and then written them back into the show only to unceremoniously write off the other character off-screen between seasons.
- It’ll take a while, but killing Kate is ideal in terms of actually allowing Neal to get some – Matthew Bomer is far too pretty to be getting absolutely no action, so the whole unrequited love thing with Kate was really killing his game.
- I surmise the shirtless sculpting was scripted? Yes, I just had fun with the letter “s,” thanks for noticing.
- Speaking of The Mentalist, I watched an episode on the plane this week: I have a few shows that I’ve fallen behind on that I want to catch up on, and I feel like I sort of want to add The Mentalist to the list. Bruno Heller is running a tight ship, and it showed in the episode I had a chance to watch.
- Anyone really want to know what I thought about the Burn Notice finale? We’re more than a week out now, so I probably won’t bother, but if there’s a LOT of interest I could throw out a post-mortem on the season.