I love White Collar, and what’s not to love? Between the hard rules of Peter Burke and the FBI, the wild mischief of Neal Caffrey, the hilarity of Mozzie, the warm strength of Peter’s wife Elizabeth, and the danger of various criminals, White Collar is never lacking in drama, suspense, and laughter, as well as intricate story lines.
This is another crime show with a quirk, but unlike most, it involves murder only rarely. These aren’t murder mysteries, this is a contest between the law and all manner of law-breaker. Thieves, con artists, forgers, counterfeiters, corrupt agents, these are the usual enemies, which makes the ever present possibility of lethal force that much more menacing. What better way to match such criminals than with one of their own kind, a convict turned criminal informant for the FBI?
Enter Neal Caffrey, lovable rogue and gentleman thief, with looks and charm to make the ladies melt where they stand. Yet, for all that he breaks the law and can use flirting as skillfully as a samurai can use a blade, he is a man with honor, and faithful to his women. He genuinely cares about others, with all his heart, and he is loyal to those who are loyal to him. That duality, of virtue and vice competing within him, make Neal a more compelling character than many other thieves, as he is constantly caught in a struggle between his redemption and his temptations.
Opposite Neal, we have Peter Burke, a man of honor and dignity, devoted to justice and the rule of law. Not that he’s inflexible. He’s wily, clever, and he can adapt as needed, but he has sound moral principles on which to stand and clear rules to follow. Combined with his basic decency, this earns him the respect, admiration, and unswerving loyalty of those around him, including his team, his superiors, Neal, even some of the more harmless criminals, and most of all his wife.
Elizabeth is a perfect complement to her husband, and a guiding light to everyone around her. She might not “kick ass” in the traditional sense, but she is a strong woman, smart, grounded, compassionate, and capable. It’s small wonder Peter fell for her, and they have been very good for each other.
It’s worth noting, as adaptable as Neal is, he has no solid personal foundation like Peter does. That’s why Peter is able to have a long, happy marriage to one remarkable woman, with whom he eventually starts a family, while Neal flits from one beautiful woman to the next, trying to have a real relationship but never quite succeeding.
That’s what really sells White Collar, to me: the people. Neal, Peter, Elizabeth, and all the rest. Mozzie, Jones, Dianah, the rest of the agents, the various women Neal could potentially settle down with, the people they help, the villains they face, they’re all so believable as people, well-rounded characters we actually care about. A number of the protagonists, more often than not, can be put in between a rock and a hard place, where it seems they can’t get by without betraying someone, but they usually find a way to through.
It bears mentioning, when I say the plots are intricate, they’re usually sensible within each episode, but the overarching plot for the first season or two really stretched things, I thought. Some things were obviously done more with the drama in mind, rather than a cohesive story. The first primary villain did some things with motives that never really made sense to me. It also made little sense for Neal to say this guy had made Neal who he is today when he very clearly didn’t.
Then, after we get through the first two seasons that were dominated by one overarching villain and his puppeteer strings, we lost any central quest for the protagonists to pursue. They kept the story interesting and the finales were always gripping, but it felt a little more like an unending series of events that was just happening, rather than having a purpose to drive the characters with. But, then again, things made more sense in the later seasons too.
Narrative problems notwithstanding, there are due props for how authentic the show is in depicting both the criminals and the feds and their methods. That comes from interested, well-informed people who know more about that subject than I do, but even I can tell they didn’t stretch the possibilities too far. It might not have always been so exciting as other, less-realistic crime shows, but it was gripping and amazing to watch these people accomplish what they did within the same set of rules that we have to operate by in real life. They couldn’t just do things, they needed proper planning, good timing, quick wits, and often more than a little charm. (that last especially applies to Neal)
When you get down to it, White Collar was simply a thoroughly entertaining ride, as we watched the cat-and-mouse game between enemies, friends, and even within Neal himself as he sought his freedom. It lasted for six seasons, totaling just over eighty episodes, and it was great fun.
Rating: 9 stars out of 10.