Throughout its entire first season, White Collar felt to me like a bunch of parts that never gelled into a satisfying whole. I rather loved the breezy pilot, which struck me as the kind of escapist fun USA does well when it wants to. But then the next handful of episodes was dreadfully boring and predictable, turning the show into a pretty standard crime procedural. The mid-season finale was fine, until it ended with an absolutely ludicrous twist that the show backed away from as quickly as it possibly could. And then the back half of the season seemed to be putting itself together but alternated good episodes with bland, predictable episodes. There were plenty of people obsessed with White Collar around the net, but I couldn't ever get what it was in the show they were seeing that I wasn't. I liked the chemistry between Matthew Bomer (one of those men who's so attractive even I can get the big deal) and Tim DeKay, but so much else on the show felt like warmed over pieces of other shows.
Now, it's entirely possible the show will go back to its worst tendencies next week, but the season two premiere of White Collar was, actually, a whole lot of fun. I'd wager it was one of the most fun episodes of TV I've seen this summer, tossing off breezy, goofy sequences like it was in the show's second nature, and refocusing much of what was going on so that it played more to the show's strengths. Even the obligatory between seasons casting - basically replacing Natalie Morales with recurring player Marsha Thomason - works. Thomason has a much more interesting story arc than Morales, who's an actress I absolutely love that the writers couldn't figure out what to do with. I'm not ready to call White Collar one of the most entertaining shows on TV or anything, but this premiere? It worked very well for me.
But first, let's start with something that didn't work, which is probably a fault of the network the show is on. Ostensibly, Kate died in last season's finale. It was a big, shocking moment, one that the series wants to milk for some emotional beats. But at the same time, the series wants to get right into the kinds of fun, caper-y sequences it does well. The premiere puts a gap of two months between the aftermath of Kate's death and the bulk of the episode, but it keeps bringing up her and the trauma that Neal suffered after her death. The tone of the show - and all of the network's programming, really - battles with the events of what happened, and this battle leaves the curious impression that the death should feel more important than it actually does. Kate was the element of the show's overarching plot that worked least, so I'm not sad to see her go, but I'd like the show to treat the death with something more than a casual shrug. All attempts to do so here were backpedaled away from so frantically that it made this feel more uneasy than it needed to be.
Fortunately, most of the rest of the episode did work. Neal and Peter are looking into a bank robber who seems to be doing it just for the fun of it. He hands out business cards marked "THE ARCHITECT" and has a flair for the dramatic ("That's an excellent sobriquet," says Mozzie). He's filled with bravado and seemingly has a half-wish to be caught. The guys very quickly determine that he's probably a well-off fellow who's just doing it for the fun, then land on a suspect played by Tim Matheson (who's doing so much for USA at this point that they may as well just give him the network). I'm not sure how long the show could go with having episodes featuring elaborate cat and mouse games, but in this episode, it works very, very well.
The best thing about this episode is how gorgeously directed it is (again, by Matheson). Matheson uses wide shots of the New York City skyline or the blue sky blocked by a skyscraper or men hitting golf balls off a roof toward the river, and these give the episode a cinematic splendor that definitely helps it out. Similarly, the editing and pacing of the bank robbery sequences - both the one that Neal runs as a security test and the one that the Architect actually carries out - are just thrilling to watch. The latter sequence, in particular, is terrific, tossing together our guys being two steps behind the Architect and scrambling to catch up, the threat of both losing their livelihoods, and every other agent in town being at other banks. Add into this expertly handled editing, great shot selection by Matheson, and a rattling, percussion-heavy score. It's perhaps the best sequence the show has ever done, and I hope it's not just something the series casually tossed off to prove it could before heading back toward just shrugging off these big sequences.
Naturally, Neal and Peter catch their man, figuring out that he's using an inside woman at the bank (and the actress playing the woman leaves much to be desired, honestly). They manage to evade Peter being fired and Neal having to go back to jail for another week, and the episode ends with the revelation that Diana is the one holding on to the music box. This should feel a lot more weighty than it does, and I'm sure it does to the show's rabid fans, but it's a nice enough closing twist to end on. It keeps things moving relentlessly forward, and it gives the season a sense of momentum that the first season was often lacking. Then again, the pilot did the same, then squandered that momentum right away.
White Collar still isn't one of my favorite shows on TV, but I enjoyed "Withdrawal," for the most part. What makes the show work are those long scenes where Peter and Neal try to figure out just what the criminal might be up to, where they bounce ideas off of each other, or any scene where Mozzie interacts with either character (Willie Garson really makes this guy a hilarious caricature of the usual snitch type character). USA's quirky character-based approach doesn't always work, since it has a tendency to make everything so light that it feels like it might float off into the stratosphere. But with a few exceptions, "Withdrawal" makes its moments count, and it makes the show seem like it will be much more fun going forward.
- Seriously, it's not Emmy-worthy or anything, but Matheson's direction of this episode is just fantastic. USA should just let this guy create a show at some point.
- Kate is obviously still alive somewhere, right?
- I'm not a big fan of Tiffani Thiessen on this show. I get why she's there, and I get why Peter needs to have a wife to hang out with, but there's rarely much interesting for her to do. Then again, I realize this is something of a minority opinion.
- Another thing lost in the "Two Months Later" jump: Neal having to deal with readjusting to society yet again.
- Neal escaping using the dye packs? A nice trick.
- So I'm not sure we can actually add this show (as some of you have agitated), since I'm the only one on staff still watching it apparently and my Tuesdays are pretty booked. But if there's sufficient demand, maybe we can figure something out. Let us know what you think.