Fox // 2009 // 617 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // September 9th, 2010
To solve the hardest crimes, hire the smartest criminal.
Emphasizing style over substance, while worshiping at the altar of the Rat Pack and Ocean's Eleven, one can summarize White Collar in a single word: Fluffy. The show is familiar and comfortable, oozing effortless charm, endearing itself to audiences surprisingly quickly, like a warm blanket. Fluffy -- but in a good way!
FBI White Collar Agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay, Carnivale) spent years pursuing brilliant con man Neal Caffrey (Matthew Bomer, Chuck) before finally catching the elusive thief and sending him to prison for four years. Without warning, Caffrey breaks out of maximum security prison -- only a few weeks left on his bid -- and Burke is back on the case. After catching up with Caffrey, the wily criminal makes Burke and the FBI a controversial bargain: in exchange for staying out of prison, Caffrey will aid the White Collar division catch the worst offenders. After all, who better to catch a thief than a thief?
At first uneasy with their tenuous partnership, Caffrey (slapped with an ankle monitoring bracelet) and Burke soon find they work extremely well together, putting away the most devious offenders. But Caffrey, always the con man, is working an angle -- a deadly game of cat and mouse with those who want him back in prison...or dead.
White Collar is a show that knows its limitations. Take for example, the word "realism." This is not a word the series knows how to spell or pronounce, so it simply gets binned. The core premise of the show, a felonious swindler performing consulting work with the FBI, is laughably implausible. But when it comes to just pure, simple good time television, White Collar has you covered. It is clever and charming enough to be utterly disarming and entertaining, but never tries too hard; the witty banter never irritates. It is almost impossible not to be charmed by this silly show.
White-collar crime, for those not in the know, is on the sophisticated end of the felonious activities spectrum. Embezzlement, computer crime, forgery, money laundering, identity theft and insider trading to name a few; these are the crimes rich people perpetrate to get richer, and when caught, get naught but a wrist-slap. Our anti-hero is a slightly reformed, slightly moral swindler con artist. Having been caught by the same FBI agent twice and facing a long prison sentence, he agrees (under slight duress) to provide "consultation services" to the White Collar division of the FBI, under the supervision of his own personal Moriarty. As premises go, it isn't exactly realistic, but White Collar wrings it for every dime.
The heart and soul of the show is the endlessly entertaining dynamic between its two main protagonists. A cat-and-mouse chase by way of a buddy cop comedy, the lead is Caffrey; an effortlessly charming and impulsive rapscallion of prodigious talent. He has a complex relationship with his handler/partner/adversary, Special Agent Peter Burke, the polar opposite of him in every way: stodgy, stiff and methodical, yet brilliant in his own way. Together, the pair strikes a playfully shifting dynamic that shuffles between distrust, grudging admiration, respect, brotherly love, then back to distrust again. Caffrey always has one hand in the cookie jar of illegality -- playing an angle, working a con -- but despite himself ends up quite enjoying his time as an FBI consultant, even prioritizing not disappointing his partner. Burke, on the other hand, slowly shifts from being constantly agonized by and suspicious of Caffrey's motives to find a growing affection for his new partner; a straight-shooting older brother trying to help his screw-up of a younger sibling. Were it not for this amazing chemistry, White Collar would be sunk; just your average cop show lost in a network sea of far better shows.
White Collar strikes a good balance between the Adventure of the Week format (a new crime to investigate, usually involving Caffrey sent undercover and absolutely breezing through every obstacle in improbable fashion) and an ongoing storyline involving Caffrey's (ex?) girlfriend, who has mysteriously vanished from his life. Obsessed with finding out her fate, he soon discovers sinister conspiracies pulling strings in his life, which constantly pull him back towards the illegal spectrum of feloniousness, to Burke's never-ending chagrin. The narrative gives you just enough of a yank to keep you strung along to the next episode, as Caffrey overturns another piece of the puzzle. The resolution, such as it is, stubbornly delays until Season Two, but fans shouldn't be too upset -- after all, it's just more show to watch.
The cast is small, but the acting is surprisingly tight and polished. As mentioned, the heart of the show is the chemistry between Matthew Bomer and Tim DeKay as Caffrey and Burke; the two actors have a remarkable banter and sense of comedic timing that establishes itself in the very first episode and gets stronger with each passing installment. Tiffani Thiessen was a bit of a surprise, in part because I'm still stuck in a Beverly Hills 90210 world where she only plays catty and unpleasant roles. Her character Elizabeth is the model wife; charming, beautiful, endlessly patient and supportive to Burke and his escapades -- basically the dream woman of any FBI agent running around town breaking laws with a felonious sidekick. Caffrey's conspiratorial and paranoid sidekick Mozzie, played by Willie Garson (Sex and the City) grows on you in a Lone Gunman kind of way; his anti-FBI shtick becomes watered-down somewhat once the writers realize how funny he is on his own.
If realism is your modus operandi, White Collar is not the show for you. With effortless grace and charm, Caffrey steers himself through social engineering problems so fiendishly complex that he should be riddled with machine gun fire six times over -- and yet somehow slips out unscathed each time. The show has an anti-gun vibe; firefights are extremely rare (sticking to the whole white collar crime theme) making the weapons of choice the wit of Burke and Caffrey, outmaneuvering the con artist of the week. And they always do. Still, it's a lot of fun, almost more than you might think the sum of its parts would suggest. I certainly wasn't planning on being a fan.
The 1.78 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks good for television, but not quite up to par with the most recent HD programming fans have grown accustomed to consuming. White levels are crisp with a muted, steely grey-blue color palate; a perfect fit for a show indelibly defined by its shooting location of New York City. There is grain evident, but not so much to distract the eye. Detail is sharp, but those concerned with details may opt to check out the Blu-ray for optimal treatment.
Audio comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround; a clear, crisp mix with clean dialogue does a serviceable job. During busy crowd or New York traffic sequences the rear channels kick up, but for the most part they sit around waiting for something to do. The show has its action moments, but most of the excitement is verbal, if you get my meaning. Bass response is average for cable television treatment on DVD.
In terms of extras, we get audio commentary from cast and crew on five episodes; a tone ranging from slightly boring to politely conversational. The cast members have a light and friendly repartee, but there's not much of interest here. Three short featurettes ("Pro and Con," "A Cool Cat in the Hat," "Nothing but the Truth"), a gag reel and ten or so minutes of deleted scenes are also tossed in for good measure.
If you enjoy films like Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven series or the gambling goofiness of Maverick, you'll have a blast with the comedic styling and stylish execution. But the levity does occasionally work against the series, especially when it takes stabs at gravity and seriousness. Caffrey's search for his girlfriend, for example, is a good subplot in of itself, but the transition of gear changing between slick grafter Caffrey and angsty emo Caffrey feels awkward and uncertain.
With the cool style of a grifter running a practiced scam, White Collar executes with such panache and confidence that it stands above the competition. With magical chemistry and sharp wit, the show is pure entertainment -- a little on the dumb side, but in a good way. It never takes itself too seriously.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 617 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Deleted Scenes
* Gag Reel
* Official Site