March 6, 2013



The curtain rang down on the 4th season of WHITE COLLAR tonight, an unusually labored one.  The show still has a fair amount of style and charm, but it’s starting to feel as shackled as Neal Caffrey’s ankle bracelet (and harder to slip out of).

Partly the series is a victim of its own success.  The central relationship between ex-con, now FBI consultant Neal (Matt Bomer) and agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) has become so convincingly strong that the original dynamic of the series, which concerned Peter’s continual and justified doubts about whether Neal was lying to him or had really reformed, no longer seems at issue.  While undoubtedly Neal will continue to have secrets from Peter for as long as White Collar is on the air, it’s no longer believable that he would really betray Peter or do something to hurt him that couldn’t be reversed, or that Peter would believe that he would–if anything, they’ve become a surrogate father and son.  Which brings us to this season, which was built around a very long game reveal that the initially mysterious James Bennett (Treat Williams) was actually Neal’s long-lost father, and tonight’s disclosure that rather than being the unjustly convicted victim of a frame for murder by villainous now-Senator Pratt (Titus Welliver) as Neal had believed, James had really been a killer all along, and one who by the end of the finale had also shot Pratt and left Peter to be arrested for the crime.

It was a miscalculation by series creator Jeff Eastin (who wrote tonight’s season finale, directed by Russell Lee Fine) to invest so much in Neal’s feelings about rediscovering his father, sepia-toned flashbacks of Neal’s troubled childhood and all.  White Collar was on much safer ground in seasons about priceless music boxes and Raiders of the Lost Ark-like troves of Nazi treasure; it’s rarely been as false as when it tried to make us care about Neal’s daddy issues, not to mention that it was obvious to everyone but Neal from the start that James was going to turn out to be a bad guy (because how could he not when he was competing with Peter to be Neal’s authority figure?).  It’s not that White Collar can’t handle emotional stakes–the bonds between Neal and Peter, Neal and sidekick Mozzie (Willie Garson), and even between Mozzie and Peter’s wife Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen) all work very well.  It’s just that this relationship felt contrived and synthetic from the start, and that sent the show in the wrong direction.

Setting up Peter’s arrest as the cornerstone of at least the first chunk of next season (the series has already been renewed) isn’t very promising either.  Even leaving aside that it all too clearly echoes Burn Notice, another USA show, which had Gabrielle Anwar’s character arrested for murder as its big cliffhanger just a season ago (not Eastin’s fault, but someone at USA should have suggested varying the pattern), the plotline is going to force the show into a prison setting in Season 5 when glamor has always been its metier, and it’s not as though there’s any doubt Peter will eventually be sprung.

None of this is to say that the show has necessarily jumped the shark.  As noted, the central relationships still work, the cast continues to have great chemistry, and even the finale had some good sequences, especially a very nicely written and played example of the old romantic saw of the marriage proposal that’s part of a con but maybe not completely fake (recurring guest star Hilarie Burton as insurance investigator Sara partners up very well with Bomer when she’s on the show).   On the other hand, the mini-zeppelin that delivered the season’s McGuffin black box of evidence…

On an episode-by-episode basis, White Collar has always been uneven, according to the strength of the particular con-of-the-week (this year’s solid hours included one where Peter and Elizabeth were taken hostage by a Bonnie & Clyde-like couple, while a weak episode featured Pablo Schreiber as a scheming, homicidal sculptor), and what sustains it is the continuing appeal of the characters and cast and the fun of the season’s central arc.  This year, that arc turned out to be the show’s weak point.  Despite rating declines (it’s down around 50% in the 18-49 demo from its heyday 2-3 years ago to the 0.7 neighborhood), it’s still a solid success for USA, and if it can bring itself back onto the right track, White Collar might still have some enjoyable cons yet to pull.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."