Cultural Checkup: USA’s Suits and White Collar

Cultural Checkup: Suits and White Collar

August 12th, 2011

Although I’ve stopped watching Burn Notice, and ceased my bizarre commitment to the dull Royal Pains this summer, and didn’t bother with Covert Affairs’ second season, and didn’t even bother with Necessary Roughness (which I thought looked terrible), I remain really quite interested with USA as a network. With White Collar, they have a show that I think hits a lot of interesting buttons, and with Suits you have a show that seems to be aiming for the same goal. They’re shows that I like a great deal in particular moments, and that are in two very different stages of development.

However, as I drop in on both shows this week, I’ll admit that I find them a bit frustrating. While Suits has a lot of potential, its youthfulness shows signs of uncertainty in regards to questions of genre and narrative, problems that White Collar continues to carry even as it clearly leads the network’s offerings in terms of quality. I know that the general approach to USA programming is not quite this hyper-critical, but I’ve stored up a few too many things to say about the two shows, so I figured the Cultural Checkup was a good way to get through them.


I was delayed in checking out the premiere of this show, as I was in Canada when it debuted, but I’ve come to find it to be a charming little show. In truth, we should really criticize the show for hewing so closely to the White Collar formula (with a mentor taking on a con artist as a mentee), but it’s a formula that works to provide a sense of purpose to early episodes. Patrick J. Adams and Gabriel Macht have a nice chemistry to them, and Adams in particular is a sharp bit of casting that makes Mike a really strong lead for the show. He’s cocky, but Harvey is more cocky, which has given him an underdog status even as his intelligence makes him particularly adept at the tasks placed before him. The show hasn’t really been pushing itself with the romance elements, trying a bit too hard to create a love triangle, but I’m invested in Mike’s difficulty adjusting to a life he was never supposed to live, and I appreciate that he’s a bit less emo about it than Neal was in the first season of White Collar (which was dragged down by the whole Kate situation, whereas I’m finding Mike’s balance between his old and new lives pretty compelling).

My one problem with the show, though, is that its procedural cases are just dumb. They’re not bad: they’re engaging enough to carry the episodes, and the casting has been pretty solid. However, the logic behind the storylines is often strained to the point of disbelief, as the show jumps through hoops to create these cases that fit into the typical procedural mould. The show would be smart to introduce recurring clients, or a recurring case, that might be able to supply more logical story options that wouldn’t seem quite so contrived and, frankly, a bit obnoxious.

Also, the show would be smarter to pitch itself as a workplace drama. Admittedly, part of this is the post-Good Wife era of legal shows facing a higher standard, but the show is clearly set up for this. Gina Torres is a strong central figure, Donna is a delightful comic presence, and Rachel (although defined pretty thinly relative to Mike) is in an interesting position as a fellow non-lawyer working in this environment. Throw in Lewis as part antagonist/part sadsack, and you have the recipe for interesting episodes confined solely to the office environment. The show did that just last week – in an episode where Harvey’s case finally gave him some character development unrelated to his job (albeit involving a merger he was overseeing), the rest of the episode used the mock trial as a way to bring the various supporting players together. There was no real “case,” and the show was much better for it. They’ve shown a willingness to tell these kinds of stories with Mike, but they’ve also insisted on maintaining a procedural core – unlike White Collar, I think a law office could be more easily positioned as a workplace drama than as a procedural, and they’d be smart to approach the show from that direction.

It’s not close to being a great show yet, and it doesn’t quite have the swagger of White Collar’s stronger episodes, but there is definitely potential here given the players involved. Unfortunately, this week’s episode was an absolute mess, trying to do much at once and never quite figuring out how to do any of it. Sending Mike off on his own with the client’s daughter was convenient, but it didn’t honestly make any sense: I think Harvey gave some sort of conversation about discretion, but wouldn’t the firm have someone who does investigations of this nature? It didn’t make any sense for a lawyer to be doing that job, except that they were going to need a hacker with a morality streak later in the episode. I’m normally all for storyline convergence, but this example felt particularly obnoxious (a word that I am using a lot with both of these shows).

I think obnoxious is a better word than ridiculous, because I don’t think my issue is that the show isn’t realistic. In this episode, Lewis’ behavior and his ability to get away with it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility, but they just went too far in trying to demonstrate their point and ran out of logical storytelling options. Lewis’ series of calamities were too broad and too numerous, and when the show tried to argue that he’s still an asset because of a particular skill set they had him reveal information that was helpful but not exactly representative of skills able to overcome the breaches of ethics earlier in the episode. They wanted this to be the episode where we see what makes Lewis tick, but all it ended up being was a contrived set of circumstances that ineffectively argued for his continued employment despite the fact he seems pretty terrible at every part of his job but hunting down money in Lichtenstein (which hardly seems like something they need a lawyer to handle – isn’t that what consultants are for?).

There are just some episodes where you can see too clearly what they’re trying to accomplish, and their success rate is spotty. They need a way for Mike’s lack of documentation in the Harvard database to be neutralized, so he happens to interact with a master forger (who, yes, happens to also be the master hacker). There were some interesting scenes that resulted from this tension, most of them conversations between Mike and Harvey, but just the idea of it had the writers’ fingerprints all over it. It may be a necessary hurdle to the show settling into a groove, but it didn’t need to feel so much like one.

I know it is still early, and I get that the show will be inconsistent. In this case, my criticisms are perhaps harsher because I think the pieces are solid, with the cast in particular finding a nice groove to it. There is a show here, but what I’ve seen to this point suggests that they haven’t found it yet – I’m pleased the show is grabbing a second season to figure it out, but I have to admit that the show continues to suggest potential only to abandon it a week later at this stage in its development, so I’ll be interested to see what direction they head in.

White Collar

…and consider me less intrigued if it heads in the same direction as White Collar. Look, I think the show’s third season has been fine, but it has suffered from the basic issue I expressed concern about when the season began: there is no way, and I truly mean no way, that Neal would actually sell the treasure and run off with Mozzie. Most prominently, there would be no show if this would happen, and USA has shown no willingness to dramatically alter the DNA of a show in the way that this would.

That’s fine: our knowledge of network logistics ruins numerous similar plot developments, whether it’s characters in mortal danger or just contemplating a major career move. However, with a USA drama, the show just ends up using it as an excuse for serialization, dropping in bits at the beginning and end of each episode to pretend that they’re building suspense. In truth, the show just kept repeating the same basic note: Mozzie wants Neal to leave, Neal doesn’t want to leave behind Peter (or Sarah, or Ellie, or June, etc.), and then they put it off for another week. Frankly, I’m not convinced that Neal would have even taken the art in the first place: the show makes it seem like he’s so addicted to being a con artist that he just can’t help himself, but there’s been nothing to suggest he really wants to live a life of subterfuge. The show utterly failed to convince me that Neal would commit this crime when it happened, and it has only made it less likely as the season has gone on; when the show finally got to the point in the finale where Neal actually said the word “No” to the idea, it was what every viewer knew from the very beginning, and not just logistically speaking.

It’s telling that this week’s finale is predicated on Neal being forced into a difficult position in regards to the treasure. He didn’t choose to be in this position: the show simply created a situation that went south and complicated his life to the point where he had to improvise in order to hide the treasure one last time. As much as individual episodes this season have showed the strength of Neal and Peter’s dynamic, and the value of Sarah’s addition to the team, the serialized element has been a frustrating distraction. I know the show has never been great with cliffhangers, that midseason doozie with Peter back in season one still a ludicrous and stupid red herring, but the show’s light-hearted escapist tone within its procedural stories has been marred this season by the overwrought false tension being created on a weekly basis.

The actual finale was fine, really – the escapist tone was right in line with what the show does best, and using Keller to create real consequences for Neal and Mozzie’s actions with Ellie’s kidnapping was probably the strongest cliffhanger the show has ever done. And yet, I spent the whole episode wondering why Peter was suddenly so obsessed with bringing down Neal. That interrogation scene early in the episode, where Peter asks Neal “hypothetically” how he would fence the painting in question, was an obnoxious – there’s that word again – case of character subtext being brought to the surface without any sense of subtlety. The script was on point thematically, but it made it seem as though it had to lay everything out for us, using Beau Bridges’ character as another source of dialogue relating to reform and recidivism. We didn’t need Neal and Peter to keep talking about their relationship for us to understand what was at stake, nor did we need a case so thinly designed to facilitate those discussions and scenarios. I’m all for embracing the show’s escapist tone, but it’s unfortunate to see it used for the purpose of overstating a theme that was crystal clear from the point the season began.

This is a show that can handle themes, and that has a nice element of tension built into it – Neal is, in fact, a con man with Stockholm syndrome, while Peter has taken to his “C.I.” more than he might be willing to admit. However, for the finale to spend so much time harping on about it felt false, false in a way that this show is usually able to avoid. The entire arc has been built on a false premise, at least in my eyes, and it’s clashed with the parts of the show that have felt comfortable and natural. The cast is uniformly strong, the chemistry is palpable, and the cases usually designed to fit the show’s tone more than any other expectation. This is a show that knows what it wants to be on a weekly basis, which is why I was so disappointed to see them committing to a serialized arc that offered only an artificial tension with the procedural stories.

I like the cliffhanger, and I like the position it puts the characters in, but my ‘enjoyment’ of the season has been marred by the way in which Eastin and the writers allowed the stolen treasure to fester in a manner we knew would never come to fruition. It doesn’t kill the show for me, but it does make me wonder if they think this kind of serialized frame is necessary in future seasons – if so, it’s very likely I’d quit watching in the near future, much as the similarly repetitive Burn Notice has lost my attention over time.

Cultural Observations

  • Yes, Neal’s jump from the building would certainly draw suspicion from someone and create a whole incident, but like I say: I’m fine with these shows going for broke and forgetting about reality with certain devices. I just don’t want them to build seasons around things I can’t believe.
  • I’ll be more retroactively patient with Skins’ hacker/forger if it becomes a recurring character. Also, I’ll be curious to see if they ever consider a White Collar/Suits crossover, or whether they’d consider pairing the shows next season – I wonder if Covert Affairs/White Collar pairing is thematic or gender-based, and to what degree they think Burn Notice/Suits are compatible.


Filed under Suits, White Collar

4 responses to “Cultural Checkup: USA’s Suits and White Collar

  1. Karen

    I enjoy White Collar more than Suits. I love caper plots such as The Sting and Oceans Eleven, and White Collar delivers on the front consistently. Suits is still “on probation” for me and the Dragon Tattoo rich daughter didn’t help matters there.

    I seem to have enjoyed White Collar’s arc more than you. I disagree that “The entire arc has been built on a false premise.” The question wasn’t whether Neal would leave with the treasure. Instead, imo, the driving question was whether Peter would arrest Neal while Neal was struggling with this dilemma. Because it WAS tempting for Neal to take the money and run. As you noted, ‘viewer savvy’ interfered with the plot tension a bit – you’re right, we knew Neal wouldn’t leave, unless this is White Collar’s series finale(?). BUT it was ‘in character’ for Neal to consider it, and that put pressure on the Neal-Peter relationship. So the arc was really not about Neal ever leaving, but about how Peter dealt with Neal, suspecting that possibility, and whether Peter would bust Neal, pre-empting Neal’s choices.

    I did, at one point, think Peter would bust Neal and have to decide to help with a ‘cover up’ so Neal could continue as CI. So I’m glad they didn’t go there. But the treasure is still in a warehouse so I guess that could still happen. Peter choosing that route would be a deal-breaker for me so I hope the treasure really does burn soon. If not, the show needs to decide what to do with Mozzie. Give him his half of the treasure and send him off the show, while Neal’s share gets sent to some worthy cause….

    I suspect Neal will need to use the treasure to save Mrs. Suit, and that isn’t my favorite solution either. The writers are dancing with the Neal-Peter dynamic of trust and bonding,but imo it’s much better to leave the question of Peter’s faith in Neal up in the air than to create false conflict by having Peter lose trust over this treasure.

    • Dan

      I agree, in that my reaction to the two shows seems to be the opposite for me as well. I never felt that the tension in the most recent season of “White Collar” was whether or not Neal would take the money and run, but rather whether he would realize that he doesn’t want it before Peter gathered enough evidence to arrest him. Even though that may not have been the intention of the writers (they seemed to lean heavily on Neal’s dilemma, when it really was a non-starter), it still worked and gave some great material for both Tim DeKay and Matthew Bomer to play.

      On the other hand, “Suits” seems to me like the show that is built on a rather false premise and I would be much more likely to embrace it if they had the following scene:

      Jessica: Mike, I just learned that you aren’t actually a lawyer.
      Mike: Oh, I guess I’m fired then.
      Jessica: Well, no. You’ve been doing some great work here and seem to always win your cases, so we looked at our odd hiring practices and as it turns out there’s nothing that actually prevents you from still working here. I mean, you don’t have to be a lawyer to work at a law firm. You just can’t argue cases for now.
      Mike: For now?
      Jessica: Well, yeah. You seem like an incredibly smart person, and have been a huge value to the firm. We’d be happy to send you to NYU or Columbia for law school so that you can remain employed here as a paralegal until you graduate.
      Mike: I though the firm only hired Harvard Law School graduates.
      Jessica: Well, as it turns out, that policy was incredibly arbitrary and restrictive to our hiring practices. Also, did you know that Harvard isn’t even the number one law school?
      Mike: Yes, I did know that. Because I know everything.

      And Scene!

  2. VentusAstrum

    Actually, you left out two of the other biggest problems with the story arc for this season’s WhiCo. The fact that Mozzie was the one who instigated this entire mess in the first place and so far he has suffered *not*one*ounce* of consequence over it. Yes, Neal needs to share the blame because it was his decision to jump in with both feet when he found out about it, instead of saying “I want no part of this.” Mozzie, however, has not had any blame of any kind heaped on him and that is very aggravating. The other thing you didn’t address is the fact that the Nazi loot is NOT “treasure”. It did not come from some now defunct ancient civilization. Many, many Russians were murdered in the Nazi’s quest to get at those museums and loot them. There was a line in the episode On The Fence where Peter was telling the gang that the Egyptian government wanted their national treasure back. This prompted the reaction from me that gee, I bet the Russian government would like to get *their* national treasures back, too. Jeff E. & company seemed singularly bent on completely ignoring this particular point of the storyline.

  3. Lynn

    I really like White Collar , it s my favorite show. Of course Matt Bomer is a hunk. I remember the shows It Takes a thief and I spy. Good looking men doing daring cons and thefts. i liked that Al Mundy was proud that he was master thief and the best , except for his father.

    I enjoy the idea that Neal was willing to enjoy the treasure. The morality of it being stolen doesn’t bother me at all. It is possible to be a good man and a thief just as Captain Sparrow said it was possible to be a good man and a pirate.

    The mid season finale was great. It showcased why Neal Caffrey is one of the best thieves.

    I also like Suits. However Mike Ross is a lawyer , he passed the bar. A law school degree doesn’t make someone a lawyer. it is passing the bar. Law school is to help to pass the bar. John Adams was a practicing attorney and got coaching to learn and then passed the bar. However the idea that Mike Ross is endangered because he did not go to Harvard is weak. I hope that goes to bed and now focus on cases that showcase he brains and ability, I do not want an office politics and glad that is not the entire show.

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