White Collar’s Problems with Class (and Beyond)
July 25th, 2012
White Collar is a show about the elite chasing down the elite. While representing the government, the white collar bureau of the FBI is hardly recognizable as even middle class given that our vantage points are the well-off Peter Burke and the globe-trotting criminal Neal Caffrey. Meanwhile, the people they track down are often business men or men of power, people who have private security firms and operate in high-rises as opposed to slums, meaning its New York City setting is pretty well limited to the most affluent of the boroughs.
However, this only makes the show as classist as most television programming, which tends to focus on the wealthy and well-off as opposed to those of a lower class. USA’s lineup is filled with other examples, whether it’s Royal Pains (where Hank, despite struggling financially to begin the show, is placed in the lifestyle of the wealthy Hamptonites to quickly erase his relative poverty), or Covert Affairs (where Annie lives in her sister’s guest house), or Burn Notice (where Michael, despite having no money to his name, transforms his warehouse-living existence into a sign of humility as opposed to destitution), or Necessary Roughness (where “money problems” mean the slow erosion of college funds by a frivolous ex-husband while continuing to work as a high-paying therapist to wealthy clients), or…well, you get the picture.
However, we’re conditioned to accept the inherent classism of television content, so it’s unlikely these shows resonate as particularly offensive. The past few weeks of White Collar, however, have more directly addressed or failed to address the lower class in their storytelling, and I’ve come to the point where I felt the need to comment on it. Since my off-handed Twitter remark picked up some response, I wanted to expand on it briefly to explain where the show has gone wrong in its evocation of the lower class at the start of its fourth season, and why the show’s “elite” DNA is more capable of addressing issues of class than its execution would suggest.
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.
A Manipulated Medium: Warehouse 13, Covert Affairs and White Collar
July 21st, 2010
Television is by and large a manipulated medium: whether it parcels a larger story into smaller segments, or presents a series of smaller stories, there is a point where craftsmanship is dictated more by convenience than by sheer artistic merit. Writers take shortcuts, use shorthand, and do everything in their power to make sure that the forty minute running time of an episode manages to do everything it needs to do to service the larger story, or create a satisfying conclusion to the standalone narrative being constructed.
I don’t think this is an inherently negative notion, and do not use “manipulators” as some sort of slur toward television writers, a group of individuals I have a great deal of respect for. However, when it comes to this manipulation, there is a time, a place, and a methodology: there are some situations where writers should simply let their show breathe, where manipulating the story in a particular direction will only damage the series’ momentum, and there are also some ways in which you can manipulate your series which transfers the manipulation from the series’ characters to the audience, something that all writers should avoid at all costs.
While manipulation is a problem with high-concept procedurals (like Lost, Heroes or the upcoming The Event on NBC), it’s also present in the light-hearted cable procedurals which have become so prolific, and I want to use it as a theme for addressing last night’s episodes of SyFy’s Warehouse 13 and USA Network’s White Collar and Covert Affairs, as they each represent a different approach to manipulating the trajectory of a television series.
“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.
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.