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.
Injury Time: Contestants turned Survivors
July 15, 2010
Earlier this season, So You Think You Can Dance was creating its own problems: the new format got off to a rocky start, and early efforts to course correct felt like an admission of those problems, making the whole thing seem like a failed experiment. However, I’m willing to admit that the show has pulled it together, as by the time we reached last week’s decision to introduce a combination of All-Star routines and contestant pairings it felt like a natural evolution. The show is still clearly flying by the seat of its pants, but the season no longer feels like it is doing so in an effort to fix the initial setup. The more they adjust, the more it shows that they’re dedicated to finding the right balance, and I’ve been impressed with those efforts.
The problem, of course, is that two injuries have kept the series from really coming together, with two of the early favourites taken out by injury and eventually forced out of the competition. On a show which always features a balance between the power of the judges and the will of the audience, here the decisions are being made by a third partner, fate, which cares not for the quality of dance on display. It’s a sign that the season just can’t catch a break, crippled by these injuries which keep the natural competitive field from developing to its full potential, leaving an imbalanced group of dancers who represent less the best America has to offer and more the survivors of a grueling season.
A few thoughts on the optics of these injuries and the odd organization of the upcoming tour, along with an extension of last week’s piece on musical performers, after the jump.
“The Department of F*cked Up Family Services”
May 3rd, 2010
The challenge of the half-hour series intent on eroding the boundaries between comedy and drama is that a half-hour is not a lot of time. While hour-long series have the benefit of 40-50 minutes in which to draw out key themes or lay the groundwork for exciting climaxes, a show like United States of Tara has roughly 23-26 minutes in which to effectively accomplish the same thing.
In some cases, shows settle with telling less story, accepting that they can’t deal with issues as complicated as series with longer running times, but what’s struck me about Tara this year is that they’re not holding back. Not unlike the second season of Sons of Anarchy, it doesn’t feel like the show is saving stories for future seasons, or drawing things out. They know they don’t have time to waste, and they know the stories they want to tell, so Diablo Cody and Co. are just barreling on through with some pretty substantial success.
In the process, though, the show hasn’t been entirely transformed: the show has a much faster pace than last season, with more sources of conflict and a less predictable central protagonist, but the stories still come from someplace honest, and there are still scenes which feel like quiet ruminations amidst the chaos of it all. “The Department of F*cked Up Family Services” deals with a lot of pent up frustration from previous episodes, but it does so within a structure which manages to tell its own story at the same time – it’s not rocket science, really, but the show has a really strong hold on it this season.
“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.
January 19th, 2010
Through the magic of Twitter, I’ve known for a few weeks that critics have been fine with how White Collar resolved its midseason cliffhanger, which I…well, let’s just say that I wasn’t buying what they were selling. So, going into “Hard Sell,” I knew that I wasn’t going to be writing an extended treatise on the show’s incongruous plot twist tarnishing what goodwill it had.
However, although I was able to put away that particular hat, “Hard Sell” remains, well, a hard sell for me. While they may negotiate the cliffhanger in a way that doesn’t damage the integrity of the show, it also does absolutely nothing to make the show more interesting. There’s some vague potential on the margins here that makes me wish this were an entirely different show, but as it is all this mid-season premiere demonstrates is that no matter the crazy ideas the show might introduce, it’s always going to revert back to a pretty blasé procedural with some charismatic leads.