One of the many benefits of working at Commonweal is our great location in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. Here you’re as likely to encounter a film or television crew as you are a Columbia professor.
In fact, crews are so commonplace in our neighborhood, I pay their equipment trucks and cast trailers little more notice than I do the tour buses at Grant’s Tomb or Riverside Church.
That changed last week.
A crew had set up outside Union Theological Seminary, which is just across the street from our offices. I would have walked right past the scene, but was stopped in my tracks by the hand-printed sign on the food truck: “For the cast and crew of White Collar.” That would be USA Network’s weekly summer drama, White Collar. To understand how I was transformed from indifferent passer-by to breathless gawker at a location shoot needs some explaining.
Growing up, I watched way too much television, a hopeless wanderer in that vast wasteland of the early 60s.
Summer was a particularly dreary time for me. My days were filled with baseball and basketball and my nights were filled with despair. Nothing to watch but reruns and the occasional Carol Burnett special.
I kicked the TV habit when I went off to college, but was lured back by the Law & Order franchise on broadcast television and The Sopranos on cable (I’m from New Jersey and my mom was Italian). But summertime television hadn’t changed much—still the unending parade of reruns and the occasional Kenny Rogers special.
Things began to change about six or seven years ago when cable networks such as USA and TNT began producing original scripted series for warm-weather airing. Some, like TNT’s The Closer, with the incomparable Kyra Sedgwick in the title role, have enjoyed both critical acclaim and ratings success. Others, like a bad sunburn, hurt while you’re experiencing them, but eventually fade.
The current lineup of shows on the two networks ranges from breezy, fun entertainment to unwatchable dreck. Among the former is White Collar, and it’s my current favorite summer confection. Like cotton candy, the show is fun to consume, but leaves you guilt-ridden for having done so. And, consume it I do every Tuesday evening at 9:00 PM EDT.
Shot throughout New York, the show, now in Season Three, stars Matt Bomer as Neal Caffrey, a suave, preternaturally talented con artist who is adept at cracking safes, forging bearer bonds and Monet masterpieces, and talking his way out of the tightest of spots. Caffrey is out of jail on a special work-release assignment he negotiated with the man who was responsible for his capture and imprisonment, Special Agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) of the FBI’s White Collar Crime Division. Somehow, Caffrey convinces Burke to enlist him in the FBI’s pursuit of white-collar criminals in exchange for his eventual freedom.
If the premise sounds far-fetched and more than a little hokey, that’s only because it is.
White Collar, however, is not without its engaging moments. These come not so much from the implausible plots, which routinely play fast and loose with the space-time continuum, as from the interplay between Caffrey, Burke, and Caffrey’s long-time pal, Mozie (Willie Garson).
Mozie, a nerd in horn-rimmed glasses and no slave to fashion, is a brilliant criminal mind in his own right. His resourcefulness seems to know no bounds: he’s a technological whiz and member of the demimonde who uses his expertise and shady associates to pull off impossibly complex capers.
But amid all this silliness, there’s some interesting character development going on, and this is the show’s real attraction. Over two-plus seasons, Caffrey, Burke, and Mozie have effected subtle changes in each other’s behavior and worldview.
Under Caffrey’s influence, the straight-laced Burke has become more willing to step outside the lines in pursuit of the bad guys. He still doesn’t fully trust Caffrey, but has come to embrace Caffrey’s improvisational style and do-whatever-it-takes attitude.
Caffrey, ever the adrenalin junkie, has come to appreciate Burke’s intelligence and the success of his by-the-book approach. And despite his worst instincts, Caffrey has developed a genuine fondness for Burke and the stable, loving relationship Burke and his wife, Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen), have.
Mozie, well, he’s the tough nut in the bunch. At first appalled that Caffrey has agreed to work with the “Suits” (he still refers to and addresses Burke as “Suit”), he reluctantly agrees to put his unique talents to work for the good guys. But in first few episodes of Season Three, he’s attempting to enlist Caffrey in one last score involving billions in Nazi-looted art work. The rising tension will likely take the show to places that are unusually dark for such a frothy series.
To ease the anxiety, writer/producer Jeff Eastin has added new dimensions to the supporting characters, including Burke’s wife, FBI colleagues Diana Berrigan (Marsha Thomason) and Clinton Jones (Sharif Atkins), and Caffrey’s new love interest, Sara Ellis (Hillarie Burton). Each in his or her way will undoubtedly bring the three amigos and the show back to that brighter, happier place that every summer replacement show seeks to occupy.
Okay, this is real lowbrow fare, but, hey, it’s summer. So, try taking a break from those meatier tomes and journals that you’ve been devouring (but not Commonweal!) and feast on some empty calories for an hour a week. Your diet can probably afford it. And, you don’t have to tell anyone that you enjoyed it (just remember to wipe the pink sticky stuff from you face).