Back in October, USA Network did several things to ensure that I and other viewers would tune in for the premiere of White Collar. I'm not just talking about the schnillion ads they ran for, like, half a year before the series even launched, either. TNT tried that with Saving Grace and it didn't work (TNT also tried to hold us hostage to get previews for the next week's The Closer, but that just pissed me off).
Nope. USA did several smart things.
First? They were USA Network which has become, for me, the most trusted network on television. USA has brought us original series like Burn Notice, Psych, Monk, In Plain Sight, and Royal Pains, all of which I quite enjoy (Burn Notice still sits in the #1 spot on my DVR's Season Pass list). They also saved Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
Second? USA Network really does value characters, and not just as lip-service for their "Characters Welcome" campaign. Adrian Monk is his Emmy-award-winning self and nobody else—he needs be neither a romantic hero nor an adventure hero to be, well, a hero. Burn Notice's Michael Weston is a romantic hero and an adventure hero, but he also has a dry sense of humor that's wholly different from that of, say, US Marshal Marshall Mann (In Plain Sight). Both shows have tough female leads, each with Irish blood, who are good with a gun, but nobody would ever confuse Fiona Glenanne with Mary Shannon.
I firmly support treating characters like consistent, motivated human beings, rather than like pawns being moved willy-nilly across a plot merely for a short-lived moment of humor or drama (I'm looking at you, Season 3 The Big Bang Theory!) Consider USA commercials such as the one in a diner, where Shawn Spencer (James Roday) from Psych argues with Johnny Smith (Anthony Michael Hall) from The Dead Zone about who had the worst background, until they concede to Adrian Monk (Anthony Shalhoub) from Monk. 44-second-crossovers like this, or the one in which Michael Weston sends Dr. Hank Lawson a care package do things for me--as a series television addict--that defy words… but I digress. Point being? A character focus is clearly smart.
Third? Matt Bomer. I've adored Matt Bomer since the first scene in NBC's Chuck, when his superspy character Bryce Larson does this Parkour escape with the Intersect.
The man? Is hot. (And the stunt double's not bad either).
So yeah. You could have won easy money betting that viewers like me would tune in for the first episode of White Collar. But whether we would stay remained uncertain (I never did warm up to The Dead Zone, for example).
So what kept us tuning in regularly?
We like smart.
The plots, in White Collar, progress swiftly. The pilot starts in medias res, with a prisoner (Matt Bomer) shaving his beard into a toilet tank. Aware of the inherent suspense, the episode lets us follow a tense escape—a stashed guard's uniform, a surprise security card, another (that is, real) guard helpfully holding the door for our fugitive—before he reaches freedom. Only then is the escapee quickly, and I mean quickly, labeled as Neal Caffrey. "Convicted: Bond Forgery." Then, "Suspected: Counterfeiting" or, wait, "Securities Fraud." No, that's "Art Theft." Then it's, "Racketeering." The show trusts us to grasp the gist of this flashed information, despite another USA Network show later joking, "What's racketeering?" "Nobody knows." *
White Collar knows.
Speaking of fast information—we're not quite two minutes into the series yet. Once we watch Neal connive his way from a stolen truck to a new disguise to JFK Airport to a Rolls Royce, we quickly cut to another tense situation. As the FBI cracks a safe, the evidence blows up. Only as their leader (Tim DeKay) is drawn away to deal with Caffrey's escape ("probably because you're the only one who ever caught him") is he identified as "Peter Burke, FBI, White Collar Crime Unit NYC."
Peter introduces another mystery: "Why would Neal run with three months left on a four year sentence?" Good question. And we are now only five and a half minutes into the series.
Some shows might've spent the full hour just on Neal's flight and recapture. The Fugitive spent an entire series (1963) and movie (1993) on just that. But before ten minutes are out, Peter has his man.
Point being? The stories move hard and fast on White Collar, and rarely slow down to coddle viewers with explanations of what a White Collar Unit does, what "racketeering" means, or why Peter's FBI colleague, Diana Lancing, isn't flirting with Neal. They could just come out and tell us she's a lesbian. Instead, they imply it (if twice):
Neal: She digs the hat.
Peter: She'd rather be wearing the hat.
Neal: I thought the FBI had a policy.
Peter: That's the military. We don't ask, we don't care.
Anyone unable to read into the references is just left behind. And anytime a television series is willing to let the audience fill in blanks—deliberate blanks, as opposed to shows in which the writers may not know themselves, ala later X-Files--that's a smart show.But wait—that's not the only way the show respects the intelligence of its viewers. They use book-ends that show us the writers knew what they were doing all along, as when Neal receives his FBI credentials from Peter in the pilot, then gives them back in the season ender. They toss in intriguing symbolism, such as the consistent use of odd numbers for wild-card Neal and even numbers for the staid, dependable FBI. In the pilot, Neal is serving a four year sentence, but escapes with three months left to go. Neal pays three dollars for the yellow blazer that helps him snag the Rolls Royce at the airport. When Peter arrives at the prison, Neal has a four hour head start on his pursuers. If he's recaptured, "They're going to give you another four years for this" (Peter). Peter's wife, Elizabeth, has been competing with Neal for three years. Neal is put in room eleven, at the ratty hotel the FBI finds for him, and has $700/month to work with in order to find his own room. (Now you'll be watching for it too, won't you?)
On top of all this, White Collar makes full use of allusions beyond that to the US military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. If the audience doesn't get them, too bad. White Collar isn't explaining—and what intelligent viewer can resist that?
Burke gets the fun one liners. "You think so, Copernicus?" he asks Jones, in the pilot or, to Neal, "Sorry Dino." Later, in "Home Invasion," Burke says to Neal, "Let's go, Moriarty."
Neal's friend Mozzie (Willie Garson) contributes more in the way of literary allusions. In the pilot alone, he refers to Icarus of Greek mythology ("You flew too close to the sun, my friend. They burned your wings") and misquotes the first lines of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."
He even quotes social writer Eric Hoffer: "We feel free when we escape even if it will be from the frying pan to the fire" ("Out of the Box").
And Neal? Let's face it. Neal is an allusion.
Neal meets his landlady, June (Diahann Carrol.), when she's donating some of her late husband's clothing to a thrift store. Neal recognizes the work of designer Sy Devore—famous for having designed clothing for the "Rat Pack"—and, upon his learning that June and her late husband had known him, a friendship is born.
Also born is a nice leitmotif for Neal—mid-century conman. We see it in the suits and the fedora. We see it when Burke calls him "Dino" (nickname for famous Rat-Packer Dean Martin). We see it in the use of Bobby Darrin's 1965's "The Good Life" as background music for him, once he's ensconced in June's Park Avenue townhouse; the song was made famous by Tony Bennett in '63 and covered by Frank Sinatra in '64. The Rat Pack represented many things in the 1950s and 1960s: drinking, gambling, and of course living the "good life." And they were also connected to a famous heist movie, Ocean's Eleven (later revisioned and remade starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt). In neither movie is Danny Ocean's crew a James Brothers / John Dillinger / shoot 'em up crowd. They rob casinos because it "would be criminal" to "steal from ordinary people."** In other words, they are white collar criminals—smart, well-dressed, charming.
As in, Neal.
Neal's profession, smarts, and mid-century charm allude to a couple of other fictitious white-collar criminals: Reformed diamond thief John Robie (Cary Grant) in Alfred Hitchcock's 1955 To Catch a Thief and the 1968 television show inspired by but not based on it, It Takes a Thief, starring Robert Wagner as sophisticated cat burglar Alexander Mundy. In the movie (based on the novel by David Dodge), Robie must work to clear his name after some new diamond heists copycat his MO, endangering his comfortable retirement. And in the television series an imprisoned Mundy is hired by the agent who arrested him to work for an American spy agency, stealing from bad guys, in exchange for some freedom.
Sounding familiar yet?
Throw in a resemblance to Peter O'Toole's Simon Dermott—who at least appears to be an art-savvy "society burglar" in 1966's How to Steal a Million, and Matt Bomer's Neal Caffrey in White Collar might as well be a primer in good-looking, well-dressed, gun-shy, criminals who catch criminals.
A knowledge of these classics, and through them the whole theme of the show—"it takes a thief to catch a thief"—isn't necessary to enjoy Neal. But it sure rewards the better-read and well-watched viewers. And Neal's intelligence doesn't just rest in his trickster archetype. We learned that in the pilot:
Burke: Neal's smart. You know how much I like smart.
Elizabeth: Is he as smart as those Ivy League co-eds they throw at you?
Burke: He's almost as brilliant as a woman I married.
Elizabeth: Ooh, good answer!
Neal can escape a maximum security prison without using force. He can restripe a utility card using the record head on a cassette player. He can calculate a "thousand dollar face value, drawing nine percent interest" and "compounded for sixty-eight years" and get "two hundred forty eight thousand dollars" more quickly than Special Agent Jones (Sharif Atkins) on a calculator. Neal remembers Peter and Elizabeth's birthdays and anniversary, even when Peter doesn't. As Special Agent Lauren Cruz (Natalie Morales) notes, "the Neal Caffrey I did my thesis on could make this work" ("Flip of the Coin").
Yes, she did her thesis on him. White Collar doesn't have to surround Neal and Peter with idiots to make them look smart. More than once in the pilot, Peter refers to the agents around him as "you Harvard graduates," emphasizing that he and Neal are the cream of the "Ivy League co-eds" cream, not just of the crop.
Because as smart as Neal Caffrey is? FBI agent Peter Burke is the one smart enough to catch him. Twice. When chasing Neal, he knew what size shoe Neal wore and when he "got up in the morning," as well as recognizing Neal's lady love by name (pilot).
It's Peter who figures out that the numbers three-two-four, on the safe they're cracking, are a sign they've been compromised—the numbers spell out FBI on a standard telephone. It's Peter who figures out, in "Front Man," that "Neal, you are the ransom!" Even bad guy Agent Fowler has to admit, "Aren't you clever agent Burke" ("Out of the Box").
And remember how Peter called Neal "almost as brilliant as the woman I married?"
Peter: I married a perceptive woman.
Elizabeth Burke isn't just smart, but wise. She recognizes that "Not everything has a secret meaning," an important reminder on a show that focuses so heavily on crime and conspiracies ("Front Man"). She's the person that this brilliant bond forger and alleged counterfeiter/securities fraud/art thief/racketeer turns to for advice, as much as does her husband. When Neal has broken away in the final episode of Season 1, he still takes time to call El to double-check that he's doing the right thing in giving up his crime fighting for true love:
Neal: You and Peter - how did you really know?
Is it any surprise, then, that when El asks Peter "Why is it so hard for you to believe that [Neal will] do the right thing?" and advises that "Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith" ("Book of Hours"), we, the audience, believe her? Even our placeholder character, the one truly normal person representing the civilian audience amidst the world of White Collar intrigue, is smart.
Which asks the same of the audience.
In the world of genre literature, mystery novels have an arguable reputation of being the intelligent choice. Similarly, television shows full of heists, double-crosses, and the brains behind crime fighting tend to attract particularly smart viewers; couch potatoes who don't pay attention or can't juggle several possible realities in their heads at once, trying to solve the puzzles along with our protagonists, get left behind. White Collar knows their audience and writes to them.
We're asked to recognize shades of gray, to accept that someone who commits crimes can still be worth support as a protagonist, simply because he doesn't hurt people. We're asked to accept that the FBI agent who—marginally—trusts a freed conman has valid reasons for doing so. We're shown one of the healthiest television marriages around and trusted to believe that it's as possible, or more possible, than so many of the melodramatic tear-fests that often sink other series. And we, the viewers of White Collar, tune in regularly to do just that.
Because we're not exactly idiots ourselves.
* Psych: "A Very Juliet Episode"
Lassiter: J.T. Waring is a Los Angeles mobster, went down for racketeering a few years ago.
Shawn: What's racketeering?
Lassiter: Nobody knows.
** Ted Griffin, "Ocean's Eleven" script, 2001, based on a screenplay by Harry Brown and Charles Lederer.
Quoting thanks to: tvfanatic.com and TV.com