The pilot of USA's newest series "White Collar" premiered on Friday and was, at least according to the pretty impressive Nielsen results, something of a hit. Now, some of that audience may be due to the fact that USA's been promoting the hell out of this show for months on end. But, in hindsight, the impressive number (impressive by cable standards, anyway) was certainly well deserved.
White Collar, if the pilot is anything to go by, is not a mindblowingly great show. But what it lacks in spectacularity it makes up for in spades with honest-to-god charm.
The premise is sort of The Odd Couple meets Catch Me if You Can sort of scenario. FBI Agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) and the con artist released into his custody, Neal Caffrey (Matthew Bomer) form a crime fighting team whose goal is tracking down and putting away white collar criminals - their first target was an art forger known as Curtis Hagen "The Dutchman" (Mark Sheppard), and I can only assume that counterfeiters, embezzlers, grifters, and other such cleancut scoundrels will follow in episodes to come. A hardcore crime show this is not.
No one who has seen the show could possibly confuse it as serious. The entire format is slick, clever, and blissfully free of anything more gut-wrenching than quiet heartbreak. The filming of the show has a bright, cinematic look to it - further invoking the idea of Catch Me If You Can - and that technique reflects the overall tone. The dialogue from the pilot itself provides an apt metaphor when DeKay describes his Rat Pack suit wearing costar as "a cartoon." The entire show is rather cartoon-like. The two leads are lighter takes on their character types, the script and delivery are all laced with so much good-natured humor that even the insults aren't biting, and there is nothing even vaguely dark or mysterious in this ridiculously sun-shiny New York.
White Collar is, in short, the epitome of fluff television.
There are some real strong points in the show, though. The cast is superb, for one thing. Neither DeKay nor Bomer have the phenomenal charisma of great leading men (compare their performances to Nathan Fillion in Castle and you get the idea). Bomer is boyishly charming, boyishly (and ridiculously) good-looking, and while it is difficult to imagine him pulling off a completely serious seduction or a brilliant comic moment, his overall performance is appropriately smooth and endearing. Basically, he's cute. DeKay is slightly less attractive and slightly less cute, but he's still a puppy dog compared to other members of his gruff G-man archetype - especially considering the very prominent and nearly nauseatingly adorable relationship he has with his wife Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen). He's the stronger comedic element of the two, delivering the more outrightly funny one-liners with aid of an excellent deadpan. Together they create a dynamic that is comprised more of mutual respect than of sharp banter. The comedy of the show doesn't come from how mismatched they are, but how well-matched instead.
The supporting cast - the aforementioned Elle Burke, Peter's probie officer Diana (Marsha Thomason), FBI Agent Jones (Sharif Atkins), and Neal's slightly questionable contact Mozzie (Willie Garson) - add an additional dimension to the fun. None of them had a large amount of screentime in the first episode, but each had a few key comedic moments that hint at better things to come. The pilot was further helped by a guest performance by my perennial favorite Mark Sheppard.
My favorite thing about White Collar is that it's a different kind of crime show. No, it isn't particularly serious and no, it doesn't really make me feel or think about anything more serious than how happy and adorable it all is. But it is genuinely fun. The crimes aren't a reminder of the darkness in the world, they're just a way to bring all of this happiness together into a series.
Another great thing is that the show doesn't hinge on a pseudo-romantic, chemistry-infused growing relationship between the two characters. (Actually, there's no kooky chemistry stuff going on at all because both leads are taken - we'll count Kate as valid - and the only female who has real involvement and isn't already married to one of the leads is a lesbian.) Peter Burke and Neal Caffrey spent years as adversaries, but they know each other well enough to easily become friends. There's no stress in the dynamic - the show allows them to just be fun.
Taking the pilot as a reliable indicator, I can see White Collar having a fairly successful future as a television show. Perhaps it will show greater depth in time, and perhaps not. I don't think it needs to, necessarily. There can be a show out there the sole purpose of which is to entertain only within the cheerful side of the emotional spectrum. White Collar doesn't ask the viewer to think very hard (and you shouldn't, because when you do it can ruin the illusion - for instance, recognizing a security fiber instantaneously with regular eyesight? Bullshit. But who cares). It just invites pure enjoyment and brings a smile to my face. And that is more than enough to qualify it as a series worth my time.
The pilot is currently available on Hulu, and will be airing again on USA on Tuesday at 2:30pm. A new episode airs Friday October 30 at 10pm.
(This review also posted on my blog at http://meltedbrain.wordpress.com)