Josh Wolk's Pop Culture Club talks 'White Collar': Was it fun crime or punishment?

white-collar_lWelcome to the Pop Culture Club, where every week we watch an “assignment” and then report back to discuss it. This week it was the new USA crime show White Collar, otherwise known as Catch Me if You Can for 48 Hrs. The concept: Dogged FBI agent Peter Burke releases his prize arrest – supersuave supercriminal Neil Caffrey – from jail to help the Fed track down other criminals. And here’s where things zig when you think they’re gonna zag: These guys are really different!

Caffrey was played by Matt Bomer, who looks like a male model version of Tom Everett Scott, while Burke was played by Tim DeKay. For years DeKay was one of “those guys,” an actor who popped up in every show and when you saw him you’d say, “Oh, it’s that guy!” but never knew his name. But he finally made an indelible impression on me as a frustrated suburban dad desperate to be a good guy in HBO’s engrossing sex-therapy show Tell Me You Love Me. His acting was great in it, but perhaps his memorability came from the fact that in the show he was often caught masturbating. Hear that, Dylan McDermott and Dermot Mulroney? People wouldn’t have gotten you two so confused ten years ago if only one of you had taken a role in which you played with yourself.

DeKay elevated this show for me in the way he avoided the crusty-cop stereotypes, and he was the real draw. But while I found the White Collar pilot intermittently charming, I wasn’t instantly hooked. First of all, the odd couple lawman/criminal pairing felt tired to me. I know, Burke will constantly be playing by the rules, while the loosey-goosey Caffrey will gradually show him how to loosen his tie. Sigh. You know what would be interesting? Showing two people who are completely dissimilar and learn nothing from each other, but rather just cement their mutual resentment. I’m not saying it would be pleasant, but at least it would be different. Not to mention more realistic.

And then there were the easy plot shortcuts. Look, we’ve had this discussion before, but once again I was left thinking, “I am willing to suspend my disbelief as long as you don’t take advantage of it.” And by the end of the show, I was feeling taken advantage of. Need an example? Okay, what about having Diahann Carroll’s wealthy widow randomly show up to donate expensive vintage clothing mere seconds after Caffrey complained that he had nothing to wear? I was waiting for him to mention he was hungry, only to have a car speed by and throw a doughnut in his mouth. His character is meant to be charmingly persuasive, but it looked like Carroll’s patroness character was doing all the heavy lifting, he just stood there and accepted her largesse.

Some other moments that frustrated me as too easy: Early on, Caffrey shocked his coworkers with his superhuman observation skills when he guessed Caffrey’s feelings just by watching him in a prison meeting room surveillance tape without sound. My oh my, however did he figure out that Caffrey’s true love was leaving him, only by watching him press his hand against the glass, have it be ignored, and then silently yell for the woman as she walks away? Move over, Mentalist! What next, will he watch a Keystone Kop reel and deduce that these Kops are not effective lawmen?

And now that I’m gathering steam, what about the climax, in which Caffrey indirectly gave Burke permission to break into the forger’s lair by pretending to be a fugitive hiding there? Wouldn’t the forger’s lawyer be able to easily prove on the stand that since Burke never arrested Caffrey, it was clearly a set-up? And if for some reason this was a legally valid trick, Burke would never have to get another search warrant again. Any time he needed to paw through someone’s stuff, he could just throw Caffrey through the window and say, “Whoops, gotta go get my escaped convict. And now that I’m here: Hello, desk drawers!”

Look, maybe I’m nitpicking, but as I’ve said before, if writing is sloppy enough to take me out of the story, then that’s not my problem, it’s the script’s. I think the breezy White Collar has potential if they’d make the plots a bit more complicated. And I like that the new partners are equally matched in intelligence. At first I worried that they’d set up Burke as a brilliant cop, only to have him suddenly be rendered comparatively dopey by a debonair criminal who can identify the source of a dead artist’s paint just by the smell of a museum curator’s flatulence. But no, it’s a good balance.

So what did you think? Am I being too rough on the show? Do you think you’ll keep watching it? What do you think of Matt Bomer: Do you buy him as the slick criminal? And what about Willie Garson? He was another “that guy” for me for years, usually playing some order of nebbish, so when I first saw him on Sex and the City as the flamboyant Stanford, I didn’t buy him in the role. And yet now, years later, seeing him as a shadowy con man…I can only think of him as Stanford.

Before we discuss, here’s next week’s assignment: Maybe it’s all that talk about Tim DeKay’s chicken choking, but it’s got me in the mood to watch the premiere of the new VH1 series Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew. Wait, where are you going, come back! Trust me on this one: I was addicted to all of his Celebrity Rehabs and Sober House, but not for the reasons you’d think. Well, I went into them for the reasons you’d think: Ha ha, look at the bottomed-out C-lister! But the (mostly) frank and unblinking look at just how their lives went awry was tragically riveting. Not sure if the same will hold true for sex addicts, but let’s find out! It premieres this Sunday at 10 p.m. on VH1. (CBS sports can’t possibly so late that a delayed Amazing Race will bump into it.)

Okay, and now to White Collar

PHOTO CREDIT: David Giesbrecht/USA

Comments (48 total) Add your comment
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  • Karen

    I instantly liked the show. Mostly because of the chemistry between the two men – and I thought some of the writing was funny. Ms. Thiessen is a complete waste as the left behind wife – unless of course she takes up with Caffrey and THEN it might get fun. Loved Willie Garson in this – I was shocked when he was revealed. And I hope Diahann Carroll’s role takes some shape, if any at all.
    I think this is another show that will grow as it goes along. I hope USA holds onto it.

  • Micah

    I enjoyed the show. As Mr. Wolk pointed out, there’s nothing new to it, but it was still an enjoyable watch.

    As for the problems with the “fugitive on the run” scenario – an officer cannot look for a person where a person cannot be found. For instance, you cannot look in a desk drawer while searching for a person. Any evidence found therein would be suppressed.

    In this case, however, all they needed was a reason to walk into a warehouse – Caffrey provided that reason. Had Caffrey been under explicit orders to go into the warehouse, then the exigent circumstances would have disappeared as he would have been acting under the direction of a federal officer.

    So, while it may have been seen as a cop out (pun intended) it was, actually, a charming cop out. If you want to deal with the courtroom drama of whether the evidence seized would be suppressed in a criminal case against the bad guy and his henchme, I think you’re watching the wrong show.

    I agree that the patroness was a little too convenient and failed to show any actual persuasion on the part of Caffrey, but it was an easy fix that we all knew was coming. Had it not happened, wouldn’t we all be wondering why this smart criminal was still living in that hell hole of an apartment?!

    So, while I admit there were problems, I enjoyed the show overall and am hoping that they start to do something new with these two characters.

  • Joann

    I liked it — the promos had me intrigued all summer long with. I’ll hang in there for another 3 episodes. Pilots are always a bit of a snooze — lots of throwaway bits, like the car and the valet jacket. Don’t know if Diahann Carroll is going to be a regular, but she will class up the joint.

  • K

    I really liked this show, and I think it fits right in with all the other USA shows I’ve grown to love. As for your plot points regarding the wealthy widow and Burke’s observational skills – I glossed over those, as I felt they were just setting us up for premiere. If it keeps happening, I’ll get annoyed though.

    I was annoyed with the breaking and entering in leiu of a warrant as well, and I hope that it never happens again. But I do like that Caffery’s character is shown as being willing to learn more about his new ‘career’.

  • chris

    Edit your own writing before bash others.

    Early on, Caffrey shocked his coworkers with his superhuman observation skills when he guessed Caffrey’s feelings just by watching him in a prison meeting room surveillance tape without sound.

    • Via

      Oy with the poodles already.. we all make mistakes, hell my comment below is riddled with them. Yet the world keeps on spinning.

      • Martin Haro

        Loving your “Gilmore Girls” ref.

        And I was just pointing out the error in the nicest way. :)

  • Elizabeth

    I tuned in late, but like most of the fare on USA, I enjoyed it because it was a lot like the others (Burn Notice, Psych, etc. – but maybe not Monk because I don’t watch it and I don’t want to throw it in just in case.)
    I’ll probably tune in again, and on a uber-girly note, Bomer is ‘ridiculously good looking’… his eyes are almost a distraction at times.

  • Miranda

    I enjoyed it!

  • Ash

    Well, I loved the show. On the last warrant point, the art thieves dragged him into the building, Caffrey didn’t B&E. From the FBI standpoint, the art thieves could also be seen as harboring a fugitive or kidnapping, no? It’s great that Bryce Larkin is getting to be a leading man, without upstanding Chuck.

    • Josh Wolk

      Yes, but Caffrey was out of his legal 2-mile radius, that’s how he knew Burke would know he was out there.

  • Josie

    I enjoyed the show, but I don’t think it’s must see TV. It’s going to be a show that I’ll watch if it’s on and i’m home, but I probably won’t DVR. I enjoy the way the two leads play off each other. I guess I’m always up for a procedural type show that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Plus it has Bryce Larkin, what’s not to love!

  • John

    I also really liked the show

  • Peter

    “My oh my, however did he figure out that Caffrey’s true love was leaving him, only by watching him press his hand against the glass, have it be ignored, and then silently yell for the woman as she walks away? Move over, Mentalist!”

    How about move over Psych? That’s where that came from 1st.

    • kelsey

      Thank you! Why is it no one acknowledges this? I love both shows, but Psych came first, people.

  • Nicole

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. Bryce Larkin, aka Matt Bomer, is in this? I’ve barely heard of this show (perhaps because I’m in Canada and we don’t get USA here), but now I’m going to seek it out. I’ve heard some pretty good things – looks intriguing.

    • wash

      White Collar is premiering on Bravo in Canada this week.

  • Via

    White Collar caught me on a good day; I liked it in spite of the many plot holes. The one that bothered me the most tho, was the fact that the guards have looked at this man’s clean shaven face everyday for four years but didn’t recognize him once he grew a beard and shaved it off. “Oh look at this new guard that we haven’t met or trained that looks exactly like the con man in CB9!” For realz? I think if had been on any network other than USA I might have given it a harder time, but I kind of went in knowing what to expect. The chemistry works and none of the characters are irritating so I watch again sometime, but this won’t be appointment viewing for me.

    • Josh Wolk

      Yes, he went the Clark Kent route of disguise: one pair of glasses and you’re a whole new guy. Frankly, I know people who shave off their beard and I don’t notice it for weeks.

      Why am I still picking on this show? It wasn’t terrible, and yet I’m stuck in this endless loop of nitpicking. Help!

      • Via

        I feel like you’ve pulled up to In-N-Out burger and you’re upset that your Double-Double doesn’t taste like Filet mignon. Just try to enjoy the burger for what it is.

      • Josh Wolk

        I just felt like my Double-Double was a little undercooked, that’s all.

      • Via

        Lol.. touche’

  • Chappel

    I thought it was OK but not very original. Like this article’s author I thought much of the setup was too pat. I also wasn’t impressed with the “mystery”. It was obvious to me within seconds that the hundreds of books were being used for their paper so it wasn’t very impressive when the “criminal genius” finally figured it out. It’s possible I might watch it again if nothing else is on and I’m really bored… but I probably won’t. I feel like I’ve seen it all before.

    • Ama

      When I saw the books, that was the first thing that came to my mind too, but I thought to myself, it can’t be so obvious. Boy was I wrong. And why did they need the FBI agent to figure out they need to go after the fugitive’s girlfriend. Isn’t that the first place to look for a fugitive, friends, family and known associates. It does not take a genius to with high obsevation skills to determine maybe he will look for his girl who had been visiting him in jail.

  • DavidJ

    I don’t mind breezy, but it felt to me like the pilot was trying TOO hard to be cute and fun. I mean, the two leads certainly seem to fit well together, but their banter felt SO ridiculously forced and contrived. After awhile I just couldn’t take it anymore and had to switch channels.

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