With ever-increasing advances in technology ending up in the hands of bad people, along with an economic recession forcing some people into desperate situations, federal agencies are finding their hands full with combating white-collar crime — fraud, counterfeiting, embezzlement, forgery, theft in art and antiquities, computer crime, and the like. And in the wake of Bernie Madoff’s dealings, which followed a decade of Enrons, WorldComs and countless other financial scandals, citizens are getting more fed up with these acts and are taking an interest in seeing the often high-profile and wealthy perpetrators get their comeuppances.
Surprisingly, though, recent television has not picked up on this much to create engaging storylines around such crimes. Sure, there may be an occasional Law & Order episode that has a shady embezzler, but murder, serial killers and general violence are still pretty much the norm in the world of TV crime dramas. Which is a shame, since white-collar crime has — as movie and TV history has shown — such gripping, suspenseful and even romantic potential.
With the aptly named White Collar, however, USA Network — currently on an original series hot streak thanks to shows like Burn Notice and Royal Pains — tackles the theme in a highly entertaining manner. The show creates its own charm while also channeling similar previous works like the series It Takes a Thief and the film Catch Me if You Can. And in its fun, breezy depiction of the cat-and-mouse chase between the law and brilliant, shadowy criminals, it offers a lighter ambience than most TV crime shows even as it still deals with serious actions.
“It is refreshing,” White Collar star Tim DeKay agrees, about his show’s lack of reliance upon murder, chases and fight scenes. “As a kid I used to watch a lot of mysteries. I remember sitting with my dad and watching Sherlock Holmes, or Columbo. Just one of those where violence really wasn’t part of it, certainly not that you saw. What was more a part of it was trying to stay ahead of the show, to figure out if you could figure it out before the other folks. I don’t think you’ll see a lot of guns [on White Collar].”
DeKay believes that filming the series on location in New York City adds to its romantic appeal. “It’s that other character. [In] a lot of the New York crime shows, you see murders on stoops, or in back alleys. Here, it takes place in beautiful art galleries and gorgeous museums or some wonderful place where there are artifacts.”
His costar, Matt Bomer, agrees. “[New York] has a mood and a tone that you can’t find or replicate anywhere else.”
In addition to loving the “whole romantic sense of mystery” of the series, DeKay was also drawn to the main relationship — that between his character, Peter Burke, and Bomer’s character, Neal Caffrey. Burke is an FBI agent investigating white-collar crimes; Caffrey is a charming, incarcerated con man who was nabbed by Burke. When Caffrey escapes a maximum-security prison to find his lost love, Burke instantly catches him again. Before going back, Caffrey makes Burke an offer: his freedom for his assistance in catching elusive criminals. This idea — and the pair’s mutual and simultaneous distrust of and respect for each other — is put to the test in the pilot episode, when Caffrey helps Burke pursue a particularly slippery bond forger.
“Neal’s definitely got an inside track,” says Bomer, on the assets his character brings to investigations. “I think when you’re a social engineer — which is how I prefer to call it, a ‘social engineer’ — the way you get to something might be a little more liquid and circuitous than the way that the law could.
“[But] I think Neal has a complete respect for Peter and his intelligence,” Bomer continues. “[Burke’s] caught him twice, which already puts Neal in a place of, ‘OK, this guy knows his job well.’ … One of the things that humanizes [my] character is that he generally comes kind of from a quixotic place. I mean, he loves to test the boundaries with [Burke]. He’s kind of like a 4-year-old in that, you know, he doesn’t have a lot of impulse control. … Like any 4-year-old, you’ve got to hold their hand when they’re in the parking lot, or sometimes there has to be structure; they have to be reined in, or it’s going to be complete chaos.”
“They do like each other more by the end of the pilot,” says DeKay, “and yet there’s still tension, which is what we’re hoping to carry throughout [the series]. I think part of the reason that they like each other is they both, at some odd level, respect each other. They both love a good case, and they’re the two smartest people in the room.”
But even the smartest people can have their weaker areas. For both of these characters, it happens to be women. Caffrey is obsessed with getting back Kate, the woman he lost while in prison, while Burke, though happily married to Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen), can often let work get in the way of important personal matters. Like the little occasion of his wedding anniversary, which Caffrey has to remind him of.
“I think there are certain ways that Peter just can’t look at life,” DeKay says, “and one of them is in a romantic way — as much as he may try, and certainly loves his wife. I think she’ll continue to become involved in the cases insofar as she’s like Peter’s consigliere. I think — and this is just my projection — she will help him quite a bit on the whole Kate [storyline]. … And that’s another one where it adds to the tension. How far will Peter cross the line to help out Neal with Kate? Or will he even cross it? How far will he go up to it, I guess.”
Regarding Kate, Bomer says, “Ultimately, underneath it all, [Neal’s] searching for this girl, and that’s really his ultimate motivation. So I think that’s another thing that kind of brings him a little bit more down to earth, and he’s just not this perfect, suave, cool guy. He actually has a lot of flaws as well.”
As Burke has his confidante in Elizabeth, so does Caffrey with his friend Mozzie (Sex and the City‘s Willie Garson), who strongly distrusts the Feds and is filled with conspiracy theories.
“One of the really exciting things about [Mozzie],” says Bomer, “not only is he my, kind of, underground informant, he’s also my connection to Kate. He knows her. He’s the only person I have who is from that world as well, who I can rely on and trust and get information from.”
The cast and writers got some good information themselves from a retired federal agent, who provided helpful research and advice.
“He gave me some great stories,” says DeKay, “and talked about how you’re always chasing shadows. You’ve always got at least a few open cases, and you’re always chasing shadows. But he loved the chase as well, he said. Peter likes it, too!”
So far, it’s also a lot of fun for viewers. White Collar airs Fridays on USA Network (HD) beginning Oct. 23.