Image from 'White Collar'
Image from 'White Collar'

The USA Network comedy-drama series White Collar exemplifies what television dramas do best, S. T. Karnick writes.

In the classic manner of series television, the USA Network’s latest new comedy-drama series, White Collar (Fridays at 10 EST), smartly combines elements common to numerous other contemporary TV crime dramas, especially other USA Network shows, in a way calculated to maximize both familiarity and originality. Thus we have at the center of the show a pair of characters of strongly contrasting personalities but similar values under the surface differences, working together to do good.

Convicted confidence artist, forger, and counterfeiter Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) is released from prison (and shackled with an electronic tracking device) in order to assist FBI agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) in catching other criminals. As in the 1960s TV series It Takes a Thief, Caffrey is young, handsome, single, insouciant, creative, and free-spirited, and his FBI handler is more mature, less handsome, and more conventional and stable.

Together, as in all such shows and in real life to a surprising degree, their differing capacities complement each other and make for a highly effective team. The pair work well together in solving the mysteries that face them each week in the board rooms, boudoirs, and mean streets of New York City, and as noted earlier, they do seem to share many of the same values, especially now that Caffrey finds himself confronted by unexpectedly dire consequences of his raffish prior existence, which I’ll discuss later in this article.

The use of confidence schemes as a central plot element is of course a common theme in contemporary television, including highly enjoyable series such as Hustle, Leverage, and The Mentalist, and is undoubtedly a topic of relevance in this time which the public perceives as unusually rife with political and economic corruption (though in fact it’s really all pretty much as usual with the human race).

As with Hustle and The Mentalist, White Collar is rather extravagantly forgiving of the unsavory elements of Neal’s past–he was a liar and a thief, after all–but without denying the moral import of his actions. It posits instead a redemptive point of view that acknowledges the superiority of repentance and reconciliation over simple punishment, while recognizing that many (if not most) people of a criminal bent are not interested in reform.

Those thoughts are all under the surface, however, not stated openly, though anyone with normal acuity and a moral sense will surely see them. That, too, is how series television works best.

Another appealing and rather unusual element of White Collar is a happy marriage at the center of the show. Burke is married to Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen), an attractive, smart, perceptive and understanding woman. This latter quality is important because Burke’s work often puts strains on the amount of time he can spend with her, and he has in the past been all too inclined to take her for granted.

Here too, Caffrey does some good work, educating Burke about the importance of treating his wife well. This is made particularly poignant by another central story element of the show: while working for the FBI, Caffrey is surreptitiously pursuing the solution to a mystery of his own, the disappearance and probable abduction of his girlfriend. While recycling and slightly varying the central plot elements of Monk, Leverage, and several other such series, the abduction scenario gives the viewer a strong sense that Caffrey has paid a high price for his prior crimes and is now acutely aware of their cost to others, and is thus a good candidate for forgiveness and redemption (as appears to be true also of The Mentalist, although it’s not clear that much of what Patrick Jane did was actually criminal).

The supporting cast is quite talented, including Diahann Carroll, Willie Garson, Natalie Morales, and James Rebhorn. It’s particularly good to see Carroll back on TV, and Rebhorn is always a strong screen presence.

Also enjoyable is the show’s measured but definite appreciation for the finer things in life–good food, good clothes, nice cars, attractive people, comfortable and elegant home furnishings, and other such creature comforts. Caffrey’s role in the cases, which typically consists of undercover work (as in NCIS: Los Angeles but among a much more monied group of people) involves him rubbing elbows with beautiful and wealthy people and going to expensive restaurants and trendy nightclubs.

While being intrinsically pleasing–nice things are pleasant to look at, after all–this aspect of the show also means something. In the perpetually puritanism-suffused United States, it’s sometimes important to be reminded that the natural world is not intrinsically evil and that it’s all right to enjoy life as long as one does not harm others or ignore the plight of the less-fortunate in doing so.

The modern-day Luddites who would send us all back to the eighteenth century (or the fifth, or prehistoric times) in a quest for environmental purity are only the most recent manifestation of this Manichean attitude, and White Collar is appealingly free of that impulse–and quite enjoyable for it.

As noted earlier, however, the theme of personal redemption is at the forefront of the show. Central to that theme in plot terms is the issue of whether Burke can really trust Caffrey, whether the latter has truly turned his back on his old ways. Episode 3, “Book of Hours,” is especially attentive to this issue. As Burke and Elizabeth discuss the agent’s concerns about having to trust Caffrey, she says, “Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith,”

The episode explores the concept of faith in a much deeper way as well. A pre-Renaissance Bible with alleged healing powers has been stolen from a Catholic church, and Caffrey and Burke are assigned to find and retrieve it. The two discuss the possibility of whether miracles really can happen, with Burke, a lapsed Catholic, arguing against the possibility, and the stylish, free-spirited Caffrey  arguing for it.

That’s a refreshing reversal of the roles Hollywood usually assigns in discussions of religious faith, of course; typically the religious person has been shown as dour and unhappy and the doubter as much more likable.

In the end of “Book of Hours,” the Bible literally saves Caffrey’s life. Burke jokingly says, “I guess the Big Guy had your back.” Moments later, the book saves the life of a dying dog, and Caffrey tells the still-skeptical Burke, “I’ll take my miracles where I can get them,” and, “He [God] works in mysterious ways.” Here, too, White Collar reflects the much-greater openness to religion shown in other recent series such as Monk, Psych, Leverage, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, The Mentalist, and numerous others, a much more liberal and fair-minded attitude than Hollywood showed for many years before the current decade.

With such classical liberal, generous, and morally sound attitudes, sharp writing, appealing performances, a surprisingly fresh visual presentation of New York City, a serious interest in the moral content of its characters’ choices, and a strong sense that people are happiest when they’re doing good things together, White Collar is the
very model of a modern TV drama series.

Those who value surface originality above all other considerations will probably find it to be far beneath their dignity–but those who appreciate the good things formula fiction can do (as the brilliant critic, belle-lettrist, and fiction writer G. K. Chesterton repeatedly stressed) may find White Collar very much to their liking.

–S. T. Karnick