September 19, 2012



WHITE COLLAR lost a little of its charm this season (or half-season, depending on how you characterize USA’s bifurcated order pattern).  The should-FBI-agent-Peter Burke (Tim DeKay)-trust-former-thief-Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer)-and-vice-versa dynamic became repetitious and circular, with each of them switching places by the week, and some of the romance dropped out of the show’s spirit.  After 3+ seasons, it all started to feel tired.

The season got off to an uneven start, taking its first 2 episodes to reverse the ending of last season’s finale and bring Neal back to New York.  A bigger problem was a bad decision about what the serialized “mythology” story for the year should be.  In past years, it’s involved some grand heist, or search for lost love.  This year, we’re midway through a journey into Neal’s past (note:  SPOILER ALERT ahead), in particular the convoluted and so far unsatisfying saga of Neal’s father.  He was a crooked cop, no he wasn’t, he was a government informant, he was hiding something, he was the reason Neal became a crook, he was a hero…  The introduction of Treat Williams as “Sam Phelps” was an extended exercise in the viewers knowing long before Neal figured it out that he wasn’t who he seemed, and tonight’s last-second revelation that he was in fact the long-believed-dead dad (unless another twist is to come) just means we’re in for more exposition and reversals in January, all of which interfere with the show’s central relationship between Neal and Peter.

Tonight’s season 4 half-finale, written by series creator Jeff Eastin and directed by Russell Lee Fine, was indicative of the season as a whole.  The crime-of-the-week was routine and colorless, with an attempted kidnapping of the inventor of the world’s greatest bulletproof vest (the fact that it was being done at an FBI convention didn’t add much), and much of the episode was concerned with the Sam Phelps storyline, as both Neal and Peter lied to each other (for a change) about what they were doing behind one another’s backs.  Because the show’s been playing games about who “Phelps” is and what his goals are, the storyline has felt tentative and attenuated thus far.

White Collar isn’t really a plot-based show, in the end; it’s about the wit and elegance of Neal, and the genially wary To Catch A Thief relationship between Neal and the straitlaced Peter.  Those qualities have been strained this season, with less humor and a sobriety that hasn’t been working well.

The show is still moderately entertaining.  DeKay and Bomer make a fine team, and they have stalwart (sort-of) significant others in Tiffani Thiessen as Peter’s wife and Willie Garson as Neal’s bosom buddy.  It’s a glossy, smooth hour of television.  In trying to become more serious, though, it’s been caught between genuinely developing the characters (which Suits and Covert Affairs have done well this season, but so far this show has been resisting) and remaining a slick procedural.

Perhaps when the series returns in January, now that we know who Phelps “really” is, the pieces of the season will start to fit together into a satisfying whole.  At this point, though, one would have to say that White Collar‘s souffle isn’t rising.

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."