I have to admit that when I first read the IMDb review for White Collar, I was a little sceptical. White Collar crime brings to mind Bernie Madoff, obnoxious financier types in expensive suits and ponzi schemes, none of which I find particularly interesting.
Well, I was right about the nice suits.
In terms of wardrobe and charm, Neal Caffrey is like the Harvey Specter of the white-collar criminal world (with skinner ties. And hats!). As an anti-hero, he’s pretty damn effective: he’s handsome, clever and an all-around good guy, unlawful activities aside.
Although initially portrayed as his nemesis, Peter Burke, the FBI agent who made it his mission to catch Neal – and actually accomplished the feat – is almost just as likable. He’s not as suave as Neal, and looks more like the goofy guy you’d expect to tell embarrassing dad jokes at your family reunion. But he pretty much embodies the cliché of the honest FBI guy, and not in a bad way.
Wily and quirky sidekick Mozzie, literally Neal’s partner-in-crime, acts not only as the show’s comic relief, but also as an integral part of the various covert activities going on. Burke’s wife Elizabeth is the down-to-earth, sensible woman who grounds Peter when he gets obsessed, and forms a bond of sorts with (seemingly) reformed criminal Neal.
The premise of the show is simple: Neal is a master conman, who knows the ins-and-outs of the grand larceny world, specializing in stolen art. He knows the main players and their M.O. He’s much more valuable helping the FBI solve such cases than he is rotting away in a prison cell. He is released to Peter’s custody, accessorized with an ankle monitor, and given the job of unpaid consultant to the Bureau. Most cases require less-than-legal means in order to catch the bad guy, and Neal is the man for the job, assisted by the oddity that is Mozzie. Peter appreciates the help but keeps Neal on a short leash, never forgetting that he is capable of lies, deceit and very talented but also quite sticky fingers.
As the show progresses, their relationship evolves from one of distrust and mutually exploited interests into a deeper, more meaningful bond that extends beyond the office; they become friends and are even willing to transcend their own code and personal set of values in order to bail each other out of a jam.
I watched the first three seasons back to back (and have already started binge-watching season 4), and so far the show definitely delivers.
Are the events of each episode exaggerated and unrealistic? For the most part, the answer would be yes, although I’m no criminal mastermind, so many of the over-the-top scenes might as well be true to fact for all I know.
Is Neal way too charismatic to be believable as a character? Possibly, considering he’s eloquent, well-read, talented in various aspects of criminal activity, an expert in everything from art history to romantic literature… and basically amazing in everything he does.
But just like Mozzie’s fashion sense, unique turn of phrase and extravagant ways, we’re not meant to take it all too seriously. [by the way, as much as I adore Willie Garson, his over-the-top gay SATC persona has the exact same mannerisms and tone of voice as his straight Moz].
More than halfway through the show, every story arc explored in each season is gripping, and each of them reveals more about Neal’s past and the events that shaped him into the charming conman that he is.
In the beginning of the show, and through Neal’s pursuit of his star-crossed lover Kate, he jeopardizes everything to get her back; the script cleverly shields the viewer from any real connection to Kate’s character, so that the main effect her fate has on us is through Neal’s devastation and the way his feelings of loss guide his behavior.
By season 3, it’s evident that he’s come a long way; despite Moz’s constant probing (and careful planning) to provide them both an out, and safe passage into the luxurious lives their criminal careers have prepared them for, Neal repeatedly chooses to do the right thing – saving Burke on several occasions and putting bad guys away in the process. This character transformation doesn’t happen overnight, nor is it a seamless evolution from the world of heists and art theft to the straight and narrow. The choices Neal makes aren’t easy, and this makes them more powerful.
Peter’s transformation is no less important, although more subtle. Having earned his FBI status through his obsessive pursuit of Neal, which has come to fruition, he’s no longer the cynical persecutor, whose diligence and by-the-letter-of-the-law attitude helped put Caffrey away in the past, and whose only interest in Neal is professional, in terms of utilizing Neal’s expertise to solve white collar crime. Prodded by his wife as well as the other agents on his team, he doesn’t fail to recognize Neal’s growth, and gains a devoted friend and partner in the process. In return, he’s willing to bend the rules to help his partner out of trouble, even if that means compromising his professional ethics in the process.
What becomes clear right from the get-go is that neither Neal nor Peter were designed as villains; whether you identify with mischievous Neal or law-enforcing Agent Burke, the real villains in the story are found elsewhere. Although relatively tame in the violence department (compared to other cop shows – this is White Collar, after all), there is no shortage of bad guys on the show. Fowler, Adler, Keller, now whoever is behind the attack on Ellen just beg to be captured (or killed, as the case may be). Although undeniably evil, none of these characters hinge on becoming two-dimensional, cartoonish versions of supervillains; the writing, casting and acting is superb in each case and the bad guys are given enough depth to make them believable and credible threats to our heroes, who are just as masterfully written and cast.
Speaking of casting: although over the top and clearly the only character resembling a cartoon, I can’t imagine Mozzie any other way, just like I can’t imagine another actor taking on the role of Mozzie.
Which leaves us with the female cast, on the opposite side of the spectrum. Compared to Neal, Peter, Moz, the rest of the FBI team and our villains, I can’t help but find Elizabeth, Kate, Sara and Alex a bit lacking. Alex probably less so – she has spunk and her eventually revealed backstory is mysterious enough to make her intriguing.
I’m still on the fence about Elizabeth Burke: she’s likable enough, but I don’t really see much chemistry between her and Peter. Tiffani Thiessen might have dropped her middle name from the credits, but to me she’ll always be Valerie of 90210 fame, and this grown-up, decidedly nicer version of her just isn’t very convincing.
Then again, I’ll take Valerie over Neal’s bland love interests any day; I’m not sure if this was done intentionally, in order to accentuate Neal’s brilliance, but both Kate and Sara just don’t cut it for me. Kate wasn’t given as much screen time, but surely a lot could have been accomplished with this character even during the short scenes she appeared in. It feels like a missed opportunity: the love of Neal’s life should have been more than just a pretty face. It takes away from the significance of his jeopardizing everything in order to track her down, and even more so from his pain of losing her.
But perhaps the most puzzling relationship is Neal and Sara’s. Maybe it’s the casting, or maybe it’s the way the character is written, but I just see zero chemistry between the two, and even less passion, if that’s possible. At least in Kate we saw a woman he was obsessed with and would do everything for. With Sara it seems more like a relationship born of circumstance, which both are willing to let go of as soon as those circumstances change.
Whatever the case, it’s a shame that a handsome, charming character like Neal is almost indifferent towards his love life – not to mention that, for an ex con who spent four years in jail, he seems strangely disinterested in seeking sex as often as he could. With so many women on the show willing to let him con them, literally unable to resist his charms, he should be changing sexual partners more frequently than he does tailored suits.
However, as deserving of a passionate affair as Neal is, the lack of a central romantic relationship for the lead character succeeds in placing the focus on the relationship people tuned in to watch: Neal and Peter.
At the beginning of season 4, their relationship is stronger than ever, and things appear to have come full circle for Neal. Although the plot device used to return things ‘back to normal’ might initially seem like a cheap way to achieve that, it serves the purpose of giving us further insight into his earlier life, and promises to deliver in later episodes. Even if some of the cases tackled each week aren’t as brilliant as others, which is quite common a few seasons into such shows, the overarching plot line is almost guaranteed to be as intriguing as the previous ones.
I can’t begin to stress how much I enjoy binge-watching shows that have been completed. Although the anticipation of tuning in (or downloading, as the case may be) each week is something I savor in shows like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, where the intervening days give you time to digest each episode and even serve as a palate-cleanser, binge-watching entire seasons in the space of a few days is immensely satisfying when it comes to shows like White Collar.
The only downside are the possible spoilers, but with less high profile shows the possibility of stumbling across a news item lamenting the death of a favorite character, as is often the case with GoT or TWD, is less likely. So if you haven’t watched White Collar yet, do yourself a favor and give it a shot. It’s not the most profound piece of film on television, but it definitely delivers on entertainment. You can thank me later =)