You know that thing where you think, “Ugh, another crime show. That’s the last thing we need. If I have to see one more . . . oh, and who is this gentleman?” That’s the tagline to White Collar.
The USA Network understands that hiring cheekbones with a well-fitting suit attached is probably all we’ve ever needed, but here’s the thing: the show is also thoroughly enjoyable! I don’t even watch crime series unless all the characters are unspeakably British or embroiled in a convoluted murder mystery in which everyone in town is a suspect, but White Collar is my exception. In trading the typical bloody basement for a spotless New York museum space, the show injects a playfulness, refinement, and breezy extravagance into an otherwise tired and horrifying genre. It’s all erudite art forgers instead of abusive club promoters.
If you’re among those who enjoy White Collar for the pictures but haven’t actually seen it, I highly encourage you to consider watching. Here are five reasons why (and one reason why not):
5. The Kelly Kapowski game
Over the years, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen (who thinks she’s just Tiffani Thiessen now, but I’m sorry, no) has established herself as the clear frontrunner to take home the prestigious teal polka-dot statuette awarded for Least Upsetting Post-Saved by the Bell Career, and her campaign continues on White Collar where she plays charming FBI hero Peter’s equally charming and wise wife, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth doesn’t do a whole lot besides dispensing sensible morality, except for one episode each season during which she’s suddenly an event planner because there’s going to be a sting at a gallery reception. (Why would you hire her for your event? There will never not be 16 criminals there.) But as we all know, once you’re Kelly Kapowski on Saved by the Bell, you never stop being Kelly Kapowski, so it’s a fun White Collar side game to pretend that when Elizabeth has to go to “work,” that she’s actually going to The Max, putting on that black skort, and saying, “Hey guys, isn’t Testaverde’s midterm going to be hard?” while Lisa orders Screech a dorkburger with extra dork. Uh oh, I can feel an unending torrent of non sequitur references to Jessie’s caffeine pill addiction coming on (“You mean you really are taking drugs?” “I NEED THEM!”), so let’s move forward.
4. Alternate identity parades
Through the process of writing these “Best (and Worst) of…” posts, I’m discovering new facets of my television tastes that I had never sufficiently explored. In particular, it appears I have a borderline-problematic obsession with lead characters who adopt alternate personas for the purposes of scheming. From I Love Lucy to Veronica Mars, give me a wig and perhaps a fake accent, and I will curl into a fetal ball of grinning applause every time. Fortunately, White Collar understands this about me and is also all about the disguise-heavy plans. We’re meant for each other.
Matt Bomer’s Neal uses his expertise as a not-really-reformed-and-
Part of the silly, engrossing delight of the White Collar world is that Neal and his confidant Mozzie effortlessly possess every piece of information in the universe and can perform any task perfectly at a moment’s notice depending on the required false identity of the week. Professional-quality glass blowing? No problem. Oh, didn’t we tell you we once spent a summer at New York’s Boxing, Glass Blowing, and Coin Forging Camp for Witness Protection Orphans? Oh, the times we had.
Speaking of Mozzie, White Collar would be a somewhat flat, traditional affair of good versus bad, law enforcement versus criminals, were it not for Willie Garson’s shining beacon of a sarcastic sophisticate with his general disdain for laws and others. Mozzie is the world’s most adorably nonthreatening bad influence, the kind of scholarly criminal you could bring home to the family. He is made entirely out of wine, cheese, and conspiracy theories, and he wants nothing more than to flee the country with Neal and all the riches they have rightfully stolen. Is that too much to ask?
Mozzie acts as Neal’s indispensible partner in incorrigible criminality. He is the eccentric and inventive trickster complementing Neal’s leading man in their perfect con man double act. His extreme reclusive paranoia and squinting mistrustfulness of everything, particularly the government and boring people in suits who want to infringe on his fundamental right to sneakiness, allow Mozzie to reign indisputably as the winner of the show. Not since Carmen Sandiego has anyone made grand larceny feel so right.
2. Classy crimes
The primary unpleasantness infecting most modern crime shows is the frequency with which they play the “Find the prostitute’s kneecap” game. Is it in a dumpster? A tennis ball machine? That casino bouncer’s pickup truck? It’s so hard to choose!
The fanciful crimes on White Collar, by contrast, never provoke the need to stop eating dinner immediately and go take a shower. The show doesn’t have time for that gruesome nonsense amidst all the billion-dollar scavenger hunts involving art forgeries and cryptic music boxes and WWII submarines full of lost artifacts. You know, classy mysteries for the refined criminal and his cultured tastes. I’m a firm believer that a single treasure map or puzzle box is infinitely more stimulating and suspenseful than a thousand murder/revenge love triangles, and White Collar agrees with me. There are often jewels involved. Actual multicolored jewels, like you would imagine on a 19th century luxury ocean liner.
The show is at its strongest when it embraces this classic quality, giving us Neal as the old-fashioned dashing cavalier, the elegant rogue with charm, vocabulary, and art-historical reference points to spare who is rushing to switch the real jewels with the fakes or finish the forged oil painting in time. These are true capers in the very best, fanciest sense.
Next page! The very best thing about White Collar (and the worst).