White Collar: "Upper West Side Story"
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White Collar: "Upper West Side Story"

It was a strange 42 minutes of White Collar this week. “Upper West Side Story” mostly broke clean from Keller’s shackles, touching down briefly with a recovering Elizabeth and bookending with anticipation and eventual resolution over Peter’s testimony about the U-boat art. And, thankfully, may we never have to utter the words “U-boat” again in these annals. The 40 minutes in between flaunted Collar at its caper-hatching best, but also its most excessively ludicrous.

Most of the action occurred within or just outside the walls of elite NYC institution Manhattan Prep, the kind of old-money glorified teenage daycare featured in Gossip Girl. A young student named Evan isn’t like the rich kids, and his tuition has become unaffordable. He works at the bursar’s office, goes through some documents and suspects that new board member Andy Woods (Dylan Baker, in uber-oily menace-to-society mode) is siphoning endowment funds for his personal gain. Turns out, Woods is a career criminal with ties to the Juarez cartel. He’s also the father of raven-haired Prep junior Chloe, whom Evan hearts with a capital H. 

Here’s where things get a bit muddied. Peter and Neal infiltrate the school, the former posing as wealthy man-about-town Peter Stone, whose son is seeking enrollment. Neal, of course, gets mistaken as the literature teacher by a flustered school administrator, but accepts the gig when he sees Chloe and Evan are on the roll call. Over the next half hour, Neal and Peter pursue evidence of Woods’ dirty deeds. Meanwhile, Neal moonlights as Cupid with Matchmaker Mozzie, and the two try to machinate a meet-cute between Evan and Chloe. Mozzie claims it’s because he needs a distraction while awaiting Peter’s testimony. Neal wants Chloe’s gaga eyes off him and onto Evan so he can resume incriminating her dad. And if Evan scores with a girl who, far as we can tell, might actually be shallow and undeserving, then everyone wins.

It’s a lot, and there are just as many metaphors from various Shakespearian and Victorian classics helping to tell the story. Which means Neal nerding out and reciting flawless poetry from memory for a classroom of instantly swooning girls and lots of riddled banter between Neal and Mozzie as they manipulate the unsuspecting lives of their pet Romeo and Juliet. Alas, it also puts Peter in his now-patented awkward spot of being smooth and improvised while undercover (a shtick that’s bordering on their own cliché), and bringing Diana along as his supposed mistress Danielle for a dinner with Andy and his arm-candy Amber. (Amber loves Aspen, “except for the snow.”)

There’s actually quite a bit to laugh at during “West Side Story,” even if you get lost in the crash academic refresher course paralleling the drama being staged in Manhattan Prep’s arched hallways. Neal’s look of freshman delight when Peter pulled the fire alarm was infectious, Mozzie stole his final scene as a chem lab-pilfering janitor in disguise (Neal: “They have nitrogen here?” Mozzie: “Oh, this really is an excellent school.”), and Neal teaching a pudgy little troublemaker how to lie his way out of detention was sweet and Cheshire-grin-worthy.

It’d be hard to suggest that Baker made for a very intimidating adult foe. Plus, the way he lorded over Man-Prep with an oversized bodyguard was meant to reinforce his character as no-nonsense, but just made him feel like a cartoon bully who should be funneling drug money to Mexican gangs in an environment with colleagues his own size. 

Next week should be fun, especially given a guest-starring turn by True Blood’s Joe Manganiello (Alcide) and a directorial drop-in from recent villain Andrew McCarthy. And it’s good to see Collar still knows how to go to the well for an old-fashioned con, which also usually means Peter following Neal down a rabbit hole of reckless behavior. Sara hasn’t made an appearance yet since the midseason return, but at this point, Neal, Peter, Mozzie and Elizabeth are such a contagious foursome, it would almost seem beneficial to have Neal keep playing Cupid with others’ lives rather than his own. 

Stray Observations

  • Frankie Whispers. Oy.
  • Peter’s little inventory of the whole U-boat saga seemed as much for us as Neal.
  • Boy, Woods really laid out his whole hard-scrabble life story at go, huh? 
  • Peter first spotting Neal teach through the window was my favorite moment of the episode.
  • Aretha, Harry Potter, Dead Poets Society…. Not such great pop-culture zingers tonight.
  • Peter, with might well as be taped to Neal’s forehead: “From now on, I make the lesson plan. If you’re smart, you’ll follow it.”
  • Peter’s “lifelong fascination with numbers and smart leggy brunettes.”
  • Bomer is “symmetrical.”

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