There are a lot of dark, twisted cop shows on TV; think of Criminal Minds, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, CSI. White Collar (premieres Friday, 10/9c, USA Network) is trying something different: a traditional crime drama spliced with a buddy comedy.
Neal Caffrey (Matthew Bomer) is a career white-collar criminal who makes a deal with FBI Agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay), the man who put him in prison. In exchange for Caffrey's (ankle bracelet-monitored) freedom, he'll help Burke catch the bad guys. It's a premise we've seen before - the Tom Hanks-Leonardo DiCaprio film Catch Me If You Can comes to mind - but White Collar's take is more timeless and, yes, funnier.
Creator/executive producer Jeff Eastin is certainly a fan of edgy crime dramas. "The Shield is possibly my all-time favorite show, and they really did the dark, contemporary cop show to perfection," he says. "I don't think you can beat that. So I kind of wanted to go the other way."
The result: By focusing on non-violent crimes, the show avoids getting bogged down in cliche shootouts or interrogation scenes. Conversely, nobody wants to watch 42 minutes of bureaucratic paper-shuffling and data searches. "I picked white-collar crimes specifically because it's the one place where the crime can be beautiful," Eastin says. "Heroin smuggling, that's not so beautiful; if you forge The Mona Lisa, that's kind of spectacular." So Caffrey and Burke investigate art thefts, forgeries, and counterfeiting instead of gruesome murders. "Our goal is to have something every week that's suitable for framing on my wall," Eastin says.
Though the cases provide tension and add a sense of intrigue to the proceedings, the snarky friendship of the two leads keeps the mood light in the face of the show's criminal elements. "The humor plays better when we have a counterpoint of danger," Eastin says.
Adding to the show's distinctive look and feel is a jaunty 1960s vibe that shows up in its music cues, costumes and production values. "I thought I'd really like to do a stylish cop show. The problem is that style usually dates a show pretty quickly," Eastin says. "So we said, 'How can we bring some style to this that keeps it timeless?' And I love that Rat Pack era." As a result, Caffrey often dons a fedora and Sinatra croons on the soundtrack, but it remains a contemporary show.
The partners get assistance from both ends of the ethical spectrum in the form of Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen), Burke's patient, supportive wife, and Mozzie (Willie Garson), Caffrey's shadowy "associate," whose knowledge of the criminal underworld comes in handy. "Because the show is about trust, it's nice for both characters to have somebody independent of each other to talk to," Eastin says.
Diahann Carroll co-stars as Caffrey's landlady June, who allows Caffrey to stay in her mansion because he reminds her of her late husband, Byron, a jazz musician who was also familiar with the wrong side of the law.
Eastin promises that White Collar is a show that viewers will like if they enjoy shows like In Plain Sight, Monk or Burn Notice, his show's siblings on the network that advertises itself with the tagline "Characters Welcome." "We're a show about two guys who solve crimes," Eastin says. "If you walk away each week not remembering the crime but remembering the guys, then we've done our job."