USA Network's 'White Collar' begins a new season, needs to bring a back some edge

Season three of 'White Collar,' starring Matt Bomer and his baby blues, looks like it will bring some of the edge back to the show about a con-man turned fed. Bomer, as suave former con-man extraordinaire Neal Caffrey, works alongside federal agent Peter Burke, played by Tim DeKay, to solve crimes and catch the bad guy. 

By , Monsters of Television

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    Matt Bomer and Tim DeKay film a scene for 'White Collar' in Batter Park in New York.
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It has to be a difficult task to keep blue skies in a world of ethical gray.

When it has to make the choice, White Collartends to shift more toward “blue skies” than toward the darkness that should lie in Neal’s gray heart. The heroes and villains are clear cut, the “criminals” are more than willing to help the Feds (sometimes only needing a minor amount of arm-twisting), and Neal seems to be all but reformed. Outside of a few sideglances and the occasional twinkle in his eye when he’s impressed by a heist, Neal is the model of turning away from the dark side.

And it doesn’t feel unnatural for him to do so. He and Peter have been getting along (Bomer and DeKay’s chemistry is pretty solid) and Neal clearly loves being able to use his criminal mind without having to make an escape plan. But the show blunts its edge by making it less about “once a con-man, always a con-man” serving a the man who caught him (and enjoys the spoils) in what is essentially a glorified indentured servitude and making it more of a buddy cop show where one has the police brain while the other has the street smarts. Besides hints from Neal’s thieving buddies like Alex or Mozzie, it was starting to feel like Neal had turned his back on his past, particularly with the painful music box plot out of the way.

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That’s why I’m glad season 3 looks to bring more of that edge back to the show without all that “Kate” pretense. And we don’t have to hear more about the music box. And that there is (or at least should be) more opportunities for Alex to come back, especially with Hilarie Burton being raised to season regular on the show. What a nothing character she plays.

And that’s not to really say anything bad about Hilarie Burton (even though I didn’t really like her as an MTV VJ or onOne Tree Hill) but Sara is such a bland character compared to everyone else on the show in personality, storyline, even ethically. Peter is the white knight, Neal is the reformed criminal prone to temptation, Mozzie is — well, Mozzie. That Sara is supposed to be Neal’s love interest seems perfectly absurd. So uninteresting. So straight-forward. So blah. Again, I don’t necessarily blame the actor playing her but she needs to be fleshed out, especially since the twist for this season all but sets up Alex to be integral to the plot.

Sara sticking around aside, S3 kicks off with what White Collar needs to keep it from sinking into abject mediocrity (a tricky balancing act USA plays with its series every season). The problem with the music box plot was that it was a mystery that operated without Peter but he could’ve really been brought into the inner-circle at any time. There weren’t any stakes for their secrecy, not really anyway. The Nazi treasure does a better job of raising the tension: Peter is suspicious of Neal, Mozzie convinces Neal to work on the dark side one last time, Neal is clearly torn between being good cop and a good con. Personal relationships are at risk. More importantly, it could go either way.

The problem with having a “blue skies” series is that you always know it’s going to work out. Sarah on Chuck will never die, Shawn on Psych will always “divine” a solution (or be rescued by SBPD), and Ned on Pushing Daisies will always find away to console Chuck despite not being able to touch her (I know that last one’s not on anymore but does a show get any “blue skies-ier” than Pushing Daisies?). So this mess/opportunity Neal finds himself in/with will probably work out in some way. But how it works out is questionable. A lot of different paths lie open to him and the bond between Peter and Neal is strong enough now that, even if it all goes down and Peter ends up having to arrest Neal, it’s not infeasible that they could hit a reset button that allows Neal to work with the FBI again. And that’s the only way “blue skies” programming can work.

You know the ending to all these kinds of shows. It’s just this inside of darkness from “Happily Ever After.” In order for these shows to work, you have to make the journey interesting. How are you going to get there? That might be the problem with Chuck is that the show is insistent there is no danger on the course, maybe due to reactionary fans, maybe due to a brain drain in the writer’s room. What White Collar is doing is making threats on the characters in a way that has potential for drama even if it all ends happily. You can’t threaten to kill off a main character. No one will believe that. Will Neal get caught in mid-heist or will he demonstrate his reform by giving it all back? That’s the ethical question at the heart of the show: is Neal really reformed or is all of this a long con?

The episode itself was decent but the implications for the rest of the season are more exciting. Bringing Alex back as a fence while Neal is hooking up with Sara will add some tension (hopefully — Alex and Neal have way more chemistry). Peter and Neal returning to their cat and mouse game should be fun, especially in their new light of mutual respect. And just seeing how this will all turn out. It’s a case that proves “blue skies,” with all its optimism, doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t explore some tricky gray areas.

Nick blogs at Monsters of Television

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