Nattering: White Collar

I’ve been watching White Collar off and on via the Netflix for a while (I just finished season 2). And, while there’s some Scooby Doo going on with the longer-running conspiracy plots, I’m more than happy to put up with that because there really are what seem like unique and nuanced relationships at play within the main cast.

The series conceit is that Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) is a wildly successful con man/forger/thief1 who’s made a bargain to work with Peter Burke (Tim Dekay), the only FBI agent who was able to catch him. Odd couple / cop-and-crook teamups aren’t new, and like I said, I’m not always convinced the actual crime plots make quite as much sense as they should, but I keep coming back to it for a lot more of the little things which seem to buck the normal trend for characters.

Caffrey and Burke are a nice counterbalance, here. Most of the time, it seems like one half or the other of these cat-and-mouse teamups is always the brunt of the joke. Usually it’s the “good guy.” There really does seem to be, however, a push and pull at play with these two. They’re evenly matched, and while occasionally one or the other takes the upper hand and pulls one over on his opposite, it never lasts long. You never get the sense that Burke caught Caffrey just because he was lucky; he did it because he’s good at his job and because he recognizes Caffrey’s weaknesses in a way few others can.

It’s not just those two characters who surprise me in nice ways. When one of your leads is meant to be a charming, stylish, seductive type, it’s really easy to fall into the classic Bond idiom where everyone with a set of breasts fawns and drools. Don’t get me wrong: there are still times Neal plays that card, but he can’t usually get away with it as involves the main female characters. Or, rather, he only gets away with it if they’ve decided to let him.

One of the early events in the series involves Caffrey, put up in a seedy hotel by the FBI, charming his way into a posh upper story apartment (complete with designer wardrobe) in the home of a wealthy widow, June Ellington (Diahann Carroll). Burke is horribly concerned at first that Caffrey’s going to rob her blind, but it becomes almost immediately obvious that June knows exactly what kind of person Caffrey is. She just likes him anyway.2

Burke’s wife, Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen3), is another of the women taken with Neal. She, like June, is more than aware of Neal’s criminal proclivities but likes him anyway. It doesn’t stop her from letting him get away with things, mind, especially when she thinks what he’s trying to get away with will wind up helping her by-the-book husband in the end.

Speaking of the Burkes’ marriage, that’s another little gem I’ve enjoyed. Beyond the hooray-for-independence fact that Elizabeth has a high end party planning / catering company, making more than a good living for herself, there are all these little and not-so-little moments between Elizabeth and Peter that don’t feel like hoary old cliche relationship stuff. They aren’t the Cleavers, but neither are they that horrible comedy-relief trope of the long-suffering husband and his nagging wife, or the Perfect Beyond Measure Goddess and her Bumbling Other Half. And they genuinely like each other, warts and all.

It’s in the little things that I think that comes across, this intimacy and partnership. There’s a scene in season two where Elizabeth and Peter are at a dinner party with someone Peter and Neal are looking into. The suspect (Billy Dee Williams, because why not, right?) reaches to put away a photo album he’s not keen on Peter seeing. You see where this is going, but what’s really nice about this moment is that it’s not “Peter gets Elizabeth’s attention, and Elizabeth jumps to help.” No. Billy Dee Suspect moves toward the photo album, and Peter and Elizabeth look at each other simultaneously, then they both do their bits to get a look at the album without even sparing more than that eyebrow-raise between them. Why is that so awesome to me? Because this isn’t one of them nudging the other. This is two people who know each other so well that they don’t need the nudging. It’s instinctive. The look isn’t them imparting any information other than I know already know what you’re thinking.

There’s more, including Burke’s right-hand female agent, Diana (Marsha Thompson), who likes Neal but will put the smackdown on him if it looks like he’s going to hurt Burke. Neal’s con-friend Mozzie (Willie Garson), who distrusts all authority but, much to his own chagrin, has developed a respect for “The Suit” (Burke). Everyone has just enough mild suspicion of nearly everyone else that things are always interesting without being tiring. There’s really only a short way the “Will Neal return to his life of villany?” stuff can go, so it’s nice that they found this balance.

Don’t get me wrong: there are some pieces of the puzzle that don’t work. Like I said, the long-running conspiracies which move through the season have turned into a bit of an Ouroboros, and things just never work well when the plot calls for a lot of Things Blowing Up–not least of all because the green screen work on those scenes is shaky at best. Also, never look too closely for Neal’s GPS anklet, as it has a tendency to only appear when the plot requires someone to see it. But I do think, so far, that the sum of the parts adds up to something I’m interested in seeing more of.

Besides, there are worse things a show can do than channel its Scooby side once in a while.

1. While I give the show credit for pushing against tropes, it’s still television, so there’s a lot of narrative synecdoche going on with Neal. Much like every science geek being good at every science, Neal seems to be universally awesomesauce at all non-violent criminal enterprises.
2. We later discover that June’s husband had his own sketchy past, with the suggestion that June’s wealth may not have come from entirely legitimate means, either. I can’t honestly recall if they mention that early on. I think there may have been a brief mention of his having been in trouble in his younger days, but that definitely expands into his having been a sort of proto-Neal in later episodes. Possibly the writers realized that Diahann Carroll was being wasted with nothing more than “someone’s here to see you, Neal” walk-ons.
3. Yes, the one who used to have an added Amber. Make your Saved by the Bell jokes. I’ll wait.

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