White Collar: Don’t Write It Off As Another Crime Procedural

One of the surprise hits of the 2009/2010 TV season was USA Network’s White Collar. At first, it was written off as just another crime procedural drama, but it managed to overcome the initial skepticism and assert its own identity. Why is White Collar so different from other crime dramas, and why is it such an appealing series?

Before I get into the reasons why I think this is a must-watch series, here’s the 411 according to the official White Collar site:

White Collar is about the unlikely partnership of a con artist and an FBI agent who have been playing cat and mouse for years. Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer), a charming criminal mastermind, is finally caught by his nemesis, FBI Agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay.)

When Neal escapes from a maximum-security prison to find his long-lost love, Peter nabs him once again. Rather than returning to jail, Neal suggests an alternate plan: He’ll provide his criminal expertise to assist the Feds in catching other elusive criminals in exchange for his eventual freedom. Initially wary, Peter quickly finds that Neal provides insight and intuition that can’t be found on the right side of the law.

White Collar operates in a grey area, where not all criminals are bad guys, and not all law enforcement officials are good guys. Its charming con artist can talk his way out of nearly any situation. Despite escaping from prison, his felonious past proves to be invaluable to the FBI in helping to apprehend some of the most elusive criminals. Then there’s the chemistry between Neal and Peter, which is undeniably magical.

The characters depth and development is another appealing factor. At its heart is Neal, a smart, charming criminal who enjoys the finer things in life – art, wine, music – He’s a classy guy, even in the way he commits crimes, but he is motivated love. Peter is different from other FBI agents we’ve met on TV in that you don’t strictly see him in the field, you also get a good picture of his home life, which brings me to his wife, Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen). She really helps Peter put things into context. Elizabeth knows that not everything is black and white, and understands that doing things by the letter of the law isn’t always what’s best, she knows there are exceptions to every rule. Also, Elizabeth appears to have a lot of faith in Neal, and uses this to persuade her husband into considering some unorthodox methods. Rounding out the core characters is Mozzie (Willie Garson), Neal’s right hand man. He’s instrumental in helping Neal execute each assignment. Mozzie is also a source of comic relief, a contrast to Neal’s wit and Peter’s by-the-book attitude.

The setting of the show, New York City, is an important part its allure. The city is rich with museums, galleries, embassies, landmarks, and other fantastic locales. It would be difficult for me to imagine White Collar taking place anywhere else, so in a way, the setting is as much a character as Neal or Peter.

Let’s move on to white collar crime itself. It has been featured heavily in the media over the past decade, from the Enron scandal to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. These crimes can be fascinating, and the players glamorous. At its essence, many of the show’s storylines could easily be pulled from the daily news, and subject matter that viewers can really get into. I think White Collar operates on a deeper level as well, commenting on human nature. Everyone has a dark side, but not everyone heeds the call. It appeals to the part of humanity that wonders what it would be like to commit a crime and get away with it.

For me, White Collar was a pleasant surprise. It could have easily fallen into the procedural category, and without a doubt, it has some characteristics of that genre, especially in the “case a week” scenario that Burke needs Caffrey’s expert assistance with. What really sets it apart? Like the vintage wines favoured by Caffrey, it is well-balanced. It has much more substance, more character development, and is just smarter and sleeker overall. I like that it doesn’t spoon feed its viewers. This is a thinking person’s show, albeit a fun one!

For those who wrote the series off as more of the same and didn’t watch, there’s still time to be charmed by the first season of White Collar before Season 2 debuts on July 13th at 9 pm on USA Network. Canadian fans, I’ll keep you posted on a Season 2 start date, but it appears that it’s moved from Bravo to A Channel.

Photo courtesy of USA Network

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