Unless you’re The CW and you love little girls (in a demographic way, not a pervy way) or you’re NBC and you can’t make anybody watch anything anyway, the job of a broadcast television network is making sure that across 20-ish hours of primetime, you’ve given a little something to everybody and reached any many different types of viewers as possible.
With cable networks, though, the mantra is often narrowcasting. Find your audience. Know your audience. Give your audience what they want. Know your brand and hone it.
These days, few cable networks have as much control over their brand identity as USA. The folks in drama development at USA are so confident in what they do and what their audience desires that they were even able to make consummate journeyman Mark Feurerstein into a TV star of sorts.
So when I tell you that “White Collar” is a USA Network series through and through, that’s both a compliment and a general assurance. I don’t think I could look at a new TNT show and say “If you love TNT shows, you’ll love this one” or even with a new HBO show say “If you’re jazzed about HBO shows, this fits right in” but with “White Collar,” I feel comfortable saying that if you like most of USA’s original programming, there’s no reason this won’t be another winner.
Mismatched team fights crime using equal measures encyclopedic knowledge and quick-witted snark? Moderate-to-low emotional stakes with enough breezy style and charm to gloss over gaps in logic or plausibility? Talk about maintaining flow with “Burn Notice” and “Psych” and “Monk” and even “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “Royal Pains” (if you substitute “disease” for “crime”)!
Full review of “White Collar” after the break…
In the case of “White Collar,” our heroes are by-the-book G-man Peter Burke (DeKay), of the FBI’s New York City White Collar Crime unit, and Burke’s long-time nemesis Neal Caffrey (Matthew Bomer), a master criminal and con-man. Caffrey begins the “White Collar” pilot behind bars, but he remains there for fewer than five minutes. He’s good, but not good enough to escape from Burke’s clutches, but rather than return to the hoosegow, Caffrey proposes an alternative plan: In exchange for something resembling freedom, he’ll help the FBI catch other elusive criminals.
USA is rapidly becoming the home of McGyver-esque savants and Bomer’s Caffrey fits in perfectly. In the 90-minute pilot, Caffrey assists Burke in tracking down an art forger, so he knows everything there is to know about paper stock and various international ink types. In subsequent episodes, I suspect we’re going to discover that Caffrey is the the most well-rounded criminal in history and that his knowledge of crime has no less breadth and depth than Hank Lawson’s medical acumen on “Royal Pains” or Michael Westen’s general omniscience on “Burn Notice.” The temptation to ask how, if Caffery is so darned clever, he ever got caught (multiple times) is diffused with a single line of dialogue.
Actually a lot of the ridiculousness in Jeff Eastin’s pilot script is justified by expositional monologues or citations of specious precedent, as if people were tuning in to “White Collar” for realism rather than escapism. The occasional need to hyper-explain things that most viewers probably wouldn’t have cared able anyway takes away from Eastin’s ideal tone, which is in the same vein as Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can,” right down to the sometimes arbitrary Rat Pack style and to the dynamic between the main characters.
While I still find something slightly funny about the idea of making DeKay into a series TV star — I put him in the same Everyman Character Actor box that also includes people like Tim Guinee and Jeffrey Nordling — he’s perfectly cast here, embodying a specific kind of dogged determination and adding nuance to his character’s discomfort with his new partner’s lifestyle.
There’s something pinched and perpetually awkward about DeKay’s choices that are intentionally contrasted with how effortless and easy Bomer makes things look. Bomer is playing up the Sinatra/Martin charisma of the show’s Rat Pack trappings and he’s doing it well enough that the all-too-familiar tone of the show’s core relationship doesn’t grate.
The supporting roles in “White Collar” are initially limited.
Willie Garson has a few funny moments as Caffery’s weasel-y grifter associate, but it isn’t clear how he’s going to be worked into the future cases-of-the-week.
More confusing is the presence of Tiffani Thiessen as Agent Burke’s faithful, understanding wife. Part of me wants to say that this is progress for Thiessen, playing a character who isn’t defined by her predatory va-va-voom sexuality. Instead, though, her character isn’t defined by anything and there’s no sense that Thiessen is bringing anything specific to the role, nor that she’s being asked to. You’re left taking it on faith that the producers wouldn’t have cast Thiessen if they didn’t have some sort of long-term goal for her.
Directed by Bronwen Hughes, the “White Collar” pilot has been buffed to a fine surface shine, making decent use of its NYC locations and working an assortment of stylistic flourishes straight from the Soderbergh/Sonnenfeld playbook, which would be annoying except that in this genre, you could do worse than steal pages from “Out of Sight” or “Get Shorty.”
I didn’t leave the “White Collar” pilot with any great investment in the show, but with an amiable willingness to watch again. That’s how USA pilots are seemingly designed to work. They’re potato chip shows and sometimes — “Burn Notice” for me — you find it hard to stop snacking, while other times — “Royal Pains” for me — you’re content to quit after a couple episodes. Either way, “White Collar” goes down easy.
“White Collar” premieres on Friday, Oct. 23 at 10 p.m. on USA.