Ah, redemption. In the late 1960s, when the youth counterculture was railing against the system, Hollywood devised stories in which the system co-opted the outsiders. The 1967 movie The Dirty Dozen offered wartime prisoners a chance to redeem themselves on a close-to-suicidal mission. The cops in the 1968-73 series The Mod Squad essentially blackmailed three young people in trouble with the law into working for them. And the 1968-70 series It Takes a Thief concerned a charming thief (Robert Wagner) who was sprung from prison on condition that he use his talents for the good of law enforcement.
That last arrangement must have stuck in writer Jeff Eastin's mind. His series White Collar (USA Network in the United States, Bravo! in Canada) concerns a charming thief who is sprung from prison on condition that he use his talents for the good of law enforcement. Fortunately, it remains a rich concept - the charming rogue can resist authority while doing the right thing - and the show, set and shot in New York, works like a, well, charm.
Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer, boasting GQ-model looks with a dash of Jim Carrey) is the master con artist who was finally caught by FBI agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay, suggesting a less craggy Chris Cooper). In the pilot episode, included on next week's DVD set White Collar: The Complete First Season (2009-2010), Caffrey escapes prison to be with his girlfriend, only to find she has pulled a disappearing act - a puzzle that will resonate throughout the series. Burke catches him; Caffrey helps him crack a case; Burke arranges for Caffrey to be released, with an ankle bracelet to keep the scofflaw as honest as possible.
The chemistry between Bomer and DeKay is just right, and the contrast between their characters - the guy who can charm anyone, the straight arrow who seeks to channel the charmer - lends itself to banter with an edge. Bomer is a clothes horse who reveres the 1960s Rat Pack and performs tricks with his fedora; DeKay is the career agent who lives in a standard-issue suit. Tiffani Thiessen, who co-starred in the 1989-93 teen series Saved by the Bell and here plays Burke's wife, says in the bonus features, "All my girlfriends want to date Matt, but they all want to marry Tim."
At heart, it's a buddy-cop show with one guy who - like Simon Baker's Patrick Jane in The Mentalist - is a cop only by association, a free spirit who loves tweaking the system. Caffrey relies on the covert help of an anti-authoritarian surveillance whiz named Mozzie, played with an air of skeptical devotion by Willie Garson, previously Carrie's best gay male friend on Sex and the City.
The show has found an audience, despite the initial hitch that when producers tested the title White Collar most people thought it was a show about a priest. (It refers to Burke's job with the FBI's white-collar crime division, tracking those who steal through subterfuge rather than holdups.) Viewers evidently watch the series like hawks. In one of several commentaries shared with Bomer and DeKay, Eastin says he was inundated with letters because a bottle of Bordeaux that provides a crucial clue was not, in fact, the right shape for a Bordeaux.
He had better luck when, in the pilot episode, one character asks, "How upset were the Canadians?" and another answers, "Oh, very. Well, as upset as Canadians can get." Were Canadians outraged at this hammering home of our stereotype as mild nice guys? No, says Eastin. "Most of my Canadian friends are just so happy that we included them - happy to be invited to the party."