For a show that thrives off illusory FBI work and cryptic double-dealing, White Collar sure can steer toward the literal with its episode titles. "Burke's Seven" is a well-timed punchline from agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) toward the end of tonight's winter premiere (which, technically, marks season two's halfway point, not the commencement of its third). And even though you don't see the callback coming, it's still a bummer to realize the show's writers haven't been more discreet.
Such are the expectations for an hour-long USA action-buddy procedural that welcomes not only characters, to borrow the network's familiar mantra, but the challenge of keeping audiences on their toes with spider-webbed storylines, unapologetic briskness, and esoteric wit. In trendier hands, Collar could have easily been re-imagined as the high-concept story of some smooth-talking junior sleuth, Quantum Leap-ed into present-day Manhattan to bust bad guys with an uptight partner who's the only one privy to his sidekick's time-travels. Lucky for us, creator Jeff Eastin pitched his idea relatively straight, and as a result, four-or-so-million couch potatoes a week have been treated to something that more closely resembles Silk Stalkings meets Jake and the Fatman. Count. Me. In.
If there has been a major complaint hurled Collar's way, it's that our central character—reformed con man/ankle-monitored FBI consultant Neal Caffrey (a still-unfairly handsome Matt Bomer)—remains, more than 20 episodes in, singularly driven by his desire to figure out how an encoded music box once owned by Catherine the Great is connected to the murder of his girlfriend Kate. Which is fair, since a number of the resulting twists and turns have stretched both credibility and viewer comprehension, although they did allow for superb recurring guest spots by A-list drop-ins like Noah Emmerich (most recently of Walking Dead).
It also left viewers with a completely unexpected cliffhanger last September, jolting the whole Kate/music box saga with new intrigue. Unfortunately, a la the producers' jumpiness with titles, recent promotional posters seemingly aimed at converting new fans rather than enticing loyal ones buzzkilled all uncertainty from that to-be-continued apex. So, the good news is (don't read this next part if you're new to the show), Mozzie (Sex and the City's Willie Garson) isn't dead. The potentially so-so news, consequently, is that "Burke's Seven" dives head-first back into Collar's signature unsolved mystery, with the series' juiciest question mark yet neatly twisted into a finer point, as if it were a climactic balloon animal.
With all essential cast members on deck to help pursue the man who shot Mozzie and is directly linked to Kate's death, the episode gets under way and almost immediately establishes the familiar pace (Eastin is indebted to Steven Soderbergh's jazz-cool panache in Out of Sight and Ocean's Eleven) that makes the series feel like an interactive experience. Haters may be disappointed by the absence of a B-plot con for Burke and Caffrey to solve, in between Caffrey chasing his lover's ghost. Until, that is, it's revealed that the hour's action will hinge on a rogue FBI sting. One that, as Caffrey giddily observes, is pretty hard to distinguish from an illegal con. This little inversion of formula is a ton of fun to watch (and, as usual, the actors appear to be having a blast), but it's also a clever means of advancing all of Collar's typical ingredients without abandoning its primary narrative.
The series is a good ways from perfect (the literal horsing around was a bit much; Bomer remains a minor acting liability, despite his daffy gamesmanship; and there are still instances of incredibly distracting product placement), but "Burke's Seven" underscores and confirms what makes this unsuspecting gem of a show so appealing. Where most cable originals walk thin lines between circling the drain of drama and escape from near-consequence until renewal time, White Collar is always in perpetual motion. And if one looks back to its beginning, the hunt for Kate's killer has been very gradually made of central concern to Caffrey, Burke, Mozzie, and even Burke's wife, Elizabeth (an even more pregnant-looking Tiffani Thiesen).
Tonight's all-in push forward is not just well-earned but an exciting commitment to the chase during these remaining handful of season two episodes. As for what the hell happens when the show next resumes, the seeds have been ostensibly planted with the last-frame introduction of Caffrey's true nemesis. So for now, let's just sit back and enjoy the aggressively Ford-sponsored ride.
- To think, George Costanza could have finally gained a better understanding of what importers/exporters do.
- Kind of glad the Sara character is back. Neal definitely could use a fresh love interest. Preferably one that's alive.
- I was kind of excited for the "Peter's originally from upstate New York" revelation. Until I realized it was just script filler to justify his horse-y ride later on.
- Sharif Atkins doesn't set the screen on fire with more to do, but I love Jones.
- A bit convenient that Larsen happened to put the latex fingerprints on juuuuust before the FBI came plowing through the door, but I'll let that one slide.
- Garson is frightful as a dramatic actor in some early scenes, but his "lady who colors outside the lines" come-on to Sara and her incredulously repulsed expression were classic.
- "He's a Nigerian prince." "I thought those only existed in spam e-mail." A pretty funny aspect of the episode's red-herring villain, and I appreciate its only utility being to set up that exchange.
- "I have never appreciated your distrust in me more." Brooooomaaaaance!