The Sharp Dressed Sleuthing of White Collar

NOV / DEC 2011: BY RACHEL SEXTON

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For decades, a staple of TV programming has been the crime drama. Usually involving a form of law enforcement or lawyers (in one extremely successful case, Law and Order, both), this type of series featured a new case each week, and was like a mini-mystery. The audience followed the twists and turns as the criminal was revealed and then taken into custody. Recently, though, attempts to freshen the genre with new types of characters and premises have surfaced, and the storylines have evolved to include multi-arc plotting and subplots that touch on the personal lives of the characters. One popular example is White Collar. Its slick production values give background to the cases solved by a con man-turned-consultant and explore his relationship with the FBI.

Neal Caffrey is a talented con man with artistic skill and a vast array of sharp suits. Only the best FBI agent in NYC, Peter Burke, could catch him. The pilot sees him ingeniously escape from jail, prompted by his girlfriend Kate saying goodbye to him on her last visit. Burke tracks him down again but before being returned to prison, Neal notices a detail about the previous case Peter was working on. He meets with Peter to suggest a deal: Neal will use his criminal talents and knowledge to help Peter with his cases in the “White Collar” division if he is released into Peter’s custody with a monitoring anklet.

Charming Neal manages to find a stunning penthouse apartment (which comes with a wardrobe full of Devore suits) for the small housing budget the FBI provides, and the partnership begins. There are various other members of Peter’s FBI team who have regular roles, as does Peter’s wife Elizabeth. Neal’s best friend Mozzie serves as his link to the underworld… and gets plenty of good jokes. The series is shot in smooth tones of black, white, and blue to beautifully highlight the city setting.

The fact that a criminal is the lead is the first aspect of this series that sets it apart. Neal isn’t established as a completely good or bad guy at the start. He comes up with the deal to work for Peter because he believes something has happened to Kate and wants to find her. Neal’s deep love for Kate is a defining part of his character throughout the first season and beyond. He strives to do what he can to find her even though Peter advises him not to. As Peter points out, the con man lifestyle of wanting something for nothing is what got him locked up in the first place, but Neal is forced by the two-mile radius on his tracking anklet to use his abilities as a forger, thief, and drifter to stick around and solve cases.

Neal and Peter become an excellent team, and as they become more familiar with each other’s lives, they turn into friends as well. Peter and Neal learn to trust each other, though that is continually tested by Peter’s lingering suspicion of Neal’s behavior and Neal’s misguided use of his criminal skills in his new life. As they come to care about each other, we as the audience care more and more about not only Neal and Peter as characters but their relationship as well. We want them to stay friends and for Neal to find a way to leave his con man ways completely in the past. The process is a long and arduous one, and one of the best things about this series is how Neal is shown going through it. For example, Mozzie helps Neal decode clues left by Kate that lead to him uncovering a corrupt FBI agent. Peter’s support makes it painful for Neal to go through with a deal Kate set up for them in which she and Neal would leave the country together. He doesn’t say goodbye to Peter because, as he says, Peter is the only one who could convince him to stay.

This exchange between Neal and Peter is in the final moments of the first season and a few seconds afterward a tragedy happens, setting off a new mystery and further character development for Neal. That leads to another strong aspect of the writing: the pace of the overarching storylines. The search for a killer leads both into Neal’s past to Vincent Adler, the Ponzi-scheming businessman who influenced Neal to dress so suavely, and to a fabled lost Nazi treasure trove of priceless art that is nearly irresistible to a con man. It takes the entire season for a resolution to come, but we never feel like the plotting is too slow. Also, the network emphasizes this aspect of the writing by broadcasting half the season and ending with a midseason cliffhanger before bringing the show back after a hiatus of a few months.

Let’s not overlook the episode-to-episode plotting, however. The show takes an uncommon track by focusing not on figuring out who the bad guy is but on how Neal and Peter use Neal’s expertise to catch them. We watch cool little cons play out, usually with Mozzie’s help, and every once in a while the writers come up with a concept for an episode that is pure gold, such as when a witness confuses Neal for Peter, leading the two to pretend to be each other. It is also impressive how many ways the writers come up with to present “white collar” crimes. After all, fraud, embezzlement, and forgery are pretty much it.

During the first half of the third season, the plot swiftly changes as Neil is drawn into his previous lifestyle. The methods he and a criminal associate go through to keep Peter off their trail causes much angst for Neal, as he reluctantly admits that he may not want any kind of criminal life at all anymore. His friend tries to convince him that happy endings don’t happen for guys like them, while Peter encourages Neal’s new life. The rest of the season, to air this winter, will no doubt provide more of the same entertainment and surprises… and Neal and White Collar will look great doing it. ■

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Rachel Sexton is from Ohio and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Arts. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. But what you really need to know is that she has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life and her favorite fandoms are Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jane Austen, and Once Upon a Time. Plus, she is most described as quiet and her biggest vice is cupcakes. Oh, and her main hobby is editing fan videos.

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