Monday, February 24, 2014

Sick of Hearing About Your White Boy Pain, Neal (White Collar)

White Collar is one of those shows that I like, but not quite enough to keep up with it regularly, you know? It's no Teen Wolf or Sleepy Hollow or Arrow, where I absolutely must be up to date on my episodes or I really will explode. It's more of a, "Hey, there's a new season of White Collar up on Netflix," kind of show. An "I guess we should get around to watching that," kind of deal.

And that's fine. I don't deeply resent this show for not being the best thing since sliced pizza, but it is kind of weird. I mean, by all accounts, I should freaking love this show. I should be rolling around on the ground crying about how much I love this show. It's a con show, which I love (see my lavish, rambling love letter to Leverage), it's got a rakishly handsome leading man (I'm shallow), and it even has its fair share of ladies, some of whom even (gasp!) talk to each other and are friends.

All in all, it's weird that I don't like this show more, isn't it? These are all components I love. And I really do enjoy it. I just watched the entire fourth season in a weekend. But I don't I guess? I don't know what it is, but for some reason, White Collar has never really done it for me quite the way that, well, Leverage has.

I'm lying there, actually. I do know what it is that makes me love this show less. But it's not something I normally say. At all. 

White Collar would be a better show if it had less character development.

I feel dirty saying that. And I should! My battle cry on this blog has always been More Character Development! More Character Development! More More More! It feels icky trying to reverse that, but I honestly think that's the problem here. Or rather, the problem isn't that there is so much character development, but rather how that character development is handled in the plot. Allow me to explain.

The show has a very simple premise: Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer), a renowned con man and forger, makes a deal with FBI Special Agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) to be released from prison, on the condition that Neal help Peter with his white collar cases. So, we get some cute and funny buddy cops, stick Neal in a tracking anklet so he doesn't run off, and boom! Now we've got a show about the wacky hijinks of a straight-laced FBI agent and his slippery con man solving crimes in New York City. Awesome, no?

But here's the thing. As the show goes on, and we get to know each of the men, it sort of gets a little stale. Oh, the episodes themselves don't get stale. There are art heists and long cons and so many ridiculous sleights of hand. It's great. But the getting to know Peter and Neal? Yeah, it actually gets kind of old.

And this isn't Peter's fault. Peter, as a character, is appealing in his simplicity. Peter is married, to the lovely Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen). Their marriage is happy, for all its flaws, and they are a genuinely good match. The show, to its credit, has never really made a thing out of trying to wring drama from fights or upsets or trivial drama in the Burke household. Peter and Elizabeth are married and very much in love. Yay! Plus, Peter is a pleasantly simple book. He likes law and order. He has always like law and order. He believes in working hard, not taking shortcuts, and helping people. He was born to be a cop.

Neal, on the other hand, wasn't. And while this works for the show in their partnership, the problem is that the writers have kind of backed themselves into a corner. Because Peter is such a stable and normal character, every weird out of the blue thing that happens in the show, any melodramatic season arc they want to work in (and trust me, the season arcs are always melodramatic) has to come from Neal's side of the fence.

Some of that makes sense. Neal is a naturally flamboyant character, and he was a con man for years, so sure, whatever, he's got a lot of dirty little secrets. But seriously. Come on. Haven't we had enough of them by now?

First there was the whole thing with Kate (Alexandra Daddario), Neal's ex-girlfriend who was the reason he broke out of prison then made a deal with Peter in the first place. At first Neal's just chasing her because she dumped him and he doesn't know why, then we find out that Kate's been kidnapped, then we find out that Kate's kidnapper is looking for Neal's stash, then Kate dies tragically in a plane explosion...

Kate was kind of a mess.

But then, it didn't stop. After that we got Neal and Peter on a quest of find out who killed Kate and took this super special music box that could possibly lead to some Nazi treasure because of course it can. And then we meet Neal's old mentor, Adler, and he tries to kill Neal, and we find the sub full of treasure, but the FBI is onto them and also Adler is coming so Neal pretends to blow up the sub or rather he does blow up the sub but saves the art and then Neal and his best friend Mozzie (Willie Garson) are hiding the art from Peter, but Peter's onto them and also the FBI is suspicious so eventually Neal has to go on the run until Peter finds him and brings him back, only for Neal's recently unearthed mother figure dies dramatically but not before almost telling Neal the truth about his father and suitably tragic backstory and oh my gosh I'm tired.

And that didn't even go through season four. That's like, episode two of season four right there. There are another two whole seasons of that crap after that. You get where I'm coming from here?

Look, backstory is good. Character development is good. But I feel like in this case, the writers are using backstory as a crutch. And, again, that feels really weird to say, but I think it's true. The writers are using Neal's increasingly melodramatic backstory as a support system to prop up the show, instead of actually developing his character in the here and now. Instead of making Neal grow and change as a person, we're given more and more information about who he used to be and why that explains or excuses who he is now.

Except here's the thing. It doesn't actually explain anything. Not really. And it definitely doesn't excuse it either. 

So, in season four (mild SPOILERS), we finally find out what happened with Neal's family and who his dad is and all that. I say finally, but I don't really mean it, because, honestly, I didn't care. I wasn't staying up at night wondering why Neal Caffrey turned out the way he did. I was fine. Still, apparently we needed to know what was up with Neal's childhood, so the show told us. 

And then it went so far as to bring Neal's absent father back into his life and mess it up, and let Neal have all kinds of identity questions, and there was a little bit of sweetness about Neal considering Peter and Elizabeth his real parents (okay, actually that part was stinking adorable), but overall, it was just kind of meh.

Why? Because I don't really want to know why Neal is the way he is. I just want to know that he is the way he is, and then I want to watch him solve some crimes and seduce some ladies. It's his thing, and it works very well for him. I don't want to see Neal trying to deceive Peter because it never ever works, and it just gets them both in trouble, but I also don't really want to see episodes where they're up against some faceless conspiracy and the world is ending, etc. What I want out of this show is simple: I want to see Neal and Peter solve some dang cases then come home and have dinner with Elizabeth and Satchmo, their dog. 

That's it. That's what I want. But what the show keeps giving me is more and more of Neal being a tortured artist and more of him having identity issues, and how he can never really move on with his amazing, snarky, way-too-good-for-him girlfriend, Sara (Hillarie Burton), because he "doesn't know who he really is." Puh-lease.

So yeah, it's not exactly that there's too much character development, but rather too much backstory. Neal is pretty well fleshed out at this point. We know a lot about him. A lot. But he hasn't really developed at all. I mean, in baby steps, but not enough to merit the four years the show has been going. Neal's stagnating, because instead of trying to develop him in the present, the writers just keep trotting out old soap opera cliches about his past. And that's dumb.

Also dumb is the fact that Neal is defined by the men in his life, while the women tend to end up dead (see: Kate, his mother, and Ellen, his guardian). If they're lucky enough not to die, then the women must be either a recurring love interest, like Sara or Alex (Gloria Votsis), or a mother-figure, like Elizabeth or June (Diahann Carroll). 

The only recurring woman on the show who doesn't fit this pattern is Diana Barrigan (Marsha Thomason). Diana's interesting because she is the sole woman on Peter's crew, and also because she's a lesbian, and therefore immune to Neal's charms. She's a solid agent, and a good detective, she thrives at undercover, and she's a really cool chick. We like Diana. But it's important to note that the only female character on the show who isn't either Neal's mother or his lover is gay. It feels like Dean Winchester all over again.

I guess the problem with White Collar, the reason I can never really get as much into it as I want to is this: Neal. It's Neal. Or rather, it's that the whole show revolves around Neal. And it's cool for a show to have a main character, or even a central character. Whatever, that's great. But not to this extent. I want a show where Neal goes about his business and we see cool cons and he grows as a person and so do Peter and Elizabeth and Diana and Jones (Sharif Atkins) and Sara and Mozzie, and it's all fantastic. I'm just sick to death of this being the Neal sob story hour.

I believe the show can do better than this. And I'm more than a little insulted that they aren't.

The show has other redeeming features.


  1. I want to argue because I <3 <3 <3 this show hard, but yeah, the writers keep having to concoct reasons way Neal should fall in a hole and need to keep being the (kinda) bad guy, and it doesn't need to be that way. They make him immature, make him set back and unfulfilled because they don't consider lifting the plot off of his shoulders for more than one episode at a time.

    1. I'm not gonna lie, I really enjoy this show, but dang does it need to get off the Neal bus. I was explaining season four to my sister, and her reaction was literally, "I don't care about any of that. Are the cases good?"

      Which I think is how all of us feel.

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