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.
January 24th, 2011
In the midst of the growing controversy surrounding Skins’ sexual content and allegations of child pornography, which Matt Zoller Seitz does a tremendous job of breaking down over at Salon, the show itself is being lost. Or, rather, the show itself is becoming irrelevant. It’s not just the controversy that’s obfuscating the text itself, though, as the series’ almost shot-for-shot adherence to the UK original means that those of us who’ve seen that series are being given very little reason to engage with the show. Just as it is easy for the PTC and advertisers to generalize the series’ content based solely on overblown claims, it’s easy for critics with knowledge of the original series to just sort of step back and let the show happen.
And yet it seems prudent to consider “Tea” more carefully – considering the switch from Maxxie to Tea, this is almost entirely new material, although it technically intersects with some of the developments which developed between Maxxie and Tony in the UK series. On that level, “Tea” comfortably fits into concerns over the series having been made less transgressive in its trip across the pond, but I’m not sure that I’m so concerned after seeing the episode. While I lament the loss of the scenes in question, I thought the replacement scenes were more different than they were worse, and the episode as a whole built strongly on the pilot (and in ways which won’t be undone when the show goes back to a note-for-note adaptation next week).
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.
“Time Will Tell”
July 6th, 2010
Warehouse 13 ended its first season on one of those cliffhangers that I generally despise – like White Collar’s mid-season finale late last year (where it seemed like Peter was the series’ big bad), the show ended on a note which implied a huge change in direction (in this case that Artie had been killed in the explosion at the Warehouse’s entrance, and that Leena was in league with MacPherson) but which in reality was entirely inconsequential. Any uncertainty you have about Artie being legitimately dead is ended within a few minutes, and any concerns about Leena are erased when she continues to appear in the main credits.
I’m fine with the fact that a sci-fi procedural isn’t going to make these sorts of huge changes, but my response to the second season was very much dependent on how they used the uncertainty surrounding the finale to its advantage. While it may be cheap storytelling in a lot of ways, Warehouse 13 has the unique ability to explain away sudden twists under the guise of expanding its catalogue of artifacts with inexplicable powers – while I thought White Collar took a few episodes to recover from the bait and switch, Warehouse 13 uses its pre-existing rules in order to leap frog over the initial uncertainty to confidently map out the season to come. “Time Will Tell” is a strong premiere, although in a different way than I had expected, giving viewers one last glimpse at the first season’s highly personal conflict between Artie and MacPherson before replacing it with a more generic, but also more inventive, narrative.
It’s a decision I think works in the show’s favour, going against the common logic of these types of procedurals by through simplification rather than complication while continuing to embrace the quirky, charming potential within the series’ premise.
Day Seven: On the Edge of My Seat (Closing My Eyes)
February 18th, 2010
When Martin Brodeur stopped the final shot in a shootout which secured Canada an all-important victory in its march towards Hockey Gold at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, I was on Twitter.
I’d like to tell you that I spent the final moments of Canada’s tense shootout victory over Switzerland on Twitter because I was interested in researching how people respond to sporting events in tweets, but the real reason is somewhat more embarrassing. Truth be told, despite the fact that I had recused myself of all personal investment surrounding Canada’s quest for hockey gold – “It’s okay if they lose,” I said naively – my crippling inability to handle suspenseful sporting events continues to be my achilles heel.
In 2002, as Canada faced off with the United States for the Gold Medal in Salt Lake City, I spent the third period on the second story of the house alternating between pacing with my ears plugged and putting a pillow over my head to muffle out any possible sounds from my family watching the game downstairs. It’s a serious issue, perhaps even downright psychological, but I just can’t handle the pressure: even when I have no actual investment, where I’m quite fine if Canada is unable to win a Gold Medal, I somehow internalize all of the pressure that the diehard Canadian hockey fans feel, and the pressure that’s on the players (some of whom are younger than I am) to perform at a high level. Basically, I am a helpless vessel for the transferral of crippling anxiety when it comes to suspenseful and meaningful sporting events.
And so I learned of Sidney Crosby’s heroic Shootout winner over Twitter, and Martin Brodeur’s clutch save was communicated to me through the same medium. In order to make myself feel somewhat better about this, I want to talk about how people were responding to the game through Twitter, and how it’s changing (or, as it turns out, not changing) my Olympics experience.
“Book of Hours”
November 6th, 2009
I don’t have a whole lot to say about White Collar at this point, but I think it’s important to continue to acknowledge that the show is proving an engaging Friday night distraction of sorts. There’s nothing complicated about its narrative structure, and more than any other USA show it has isolated its mythology to the opening/closing of each episode, but the show has remained entertaining despite not offering anything distinctly new and thus demonstrates its solid execution.
What I want to focus on briefly is less what makes “Book of Hours” particularly compelling, as it was largely a stock hour of USA Procedural content, and more the elements of this episode that are helping (independent of the pilot) to unexpectedly offer a few interesting shades to this universe.
“Out Here in the Fields”
October 9th, 2008
Over the summer, the internet was graced with what seemed like a gift: an early look at one of the fall’s most anticipated pilots, David E. Kelley’s adaptation of the British hit Life on Mars. People watched, and there was much negativity as it relates to the show’s relationship with the British original and generally what one would call a feeble opener for the series.
But then an amazing thing happened: the pilot changed. It changed producers, it changed locations, and it changed every one of its cast members but one. While I can’t speak to the British original (I know, I know, forgive me), I can say that these are, in fact, improvements across the board. It isn’t that the original cast was awful, but rather that they felt like an ensemble not quite capable enough to live up to the show’s premise. Here, we have a group of actors with some pedigree working on a show that, with some more refinement, can certainly rise to a higher level.
The biggest difference of all between these two pilots, though, is that this one has us wondering whether they can keep up this level of quality, and not whether they will be able to create any quality at all. Considering that a victory.
Short Form Reviews
June 26th, 2008
Considering that a majority of my television watching has been spent finishing up one HBO show (Six Feet Under) and digging into another in earnest (The Wire), all in conjunction with regular TV viewing and some repeat viewings of some of the season’s best episodes (I’ll be getting to that maybe next week), some shows are either sitting on the DVR for longer and longer periods of time or, in some cases, just not grabbing my attention enough to warrant a blog post. So, we have short form reviews.
What’s there to say? Like my relationship with most USA Network shows, I enjoy my 42 minutes with these characters but never seem to really rush to watch them as soon as they air. I was the same way with both Monk and Psych before they got kicked from my rotation, and I might end up in the same position with this show. I enjoy Mary McCormack, and there’s some decent action/comedy hybrid stuff going on, but both of the most recent episodes (“Never the Bride” and “Trojan Horst”) have done little to make this must see TV.
I’d argue that both episodes had their issues – “Bride” was a bit too tacky in terms of the getup that Mary let her sister put her in, but otherwise featured a good mix of the series’ witness protection drama. “Horst,” which aired on Sunday, was stronger in action and tension, but literally stopped cold every time the storyline jumped to the mother/sister characters. There’s just literally nothing interesting about them, and I’d hate to think the show isn’t aware of it. I saw a comment over at Alan Sepinwall’s blog that the show had better be leading up to these two getting put in Witness Protection, and that’s right on: unless they’re part of Mary’s life, they serve no tangible purpose in the series’ narrative.
But if the show irons that out, it enters USA’s stable of watchable dramas – I’m more excited for Burn Notice’s return, let’s put it that way.
Having now been able to go through all eight episodes sent to critics, I’ll have to say that I have no interest whatsoever in continuing to discuss this Showtime series, even if I had interest in finishing the short season’s run. Yes, the show remains charming due to Billie Piper’s continued on-screen radiance, but each episode deals with such a small amount of plot or situation that it never amounts to anything. With only three “regular” characters (If we’re even willing to define her agent as a character), the show is such a small universe that its pacing does little to help me feel connected to anything beyond a very attractive female lead.