You may or may not know this, but I am in the midst of completing my MA thesis on USA Network and the “Characters Welcome” brand campaign (among other things). I say this to point out that I have spent a good deal of time with USA Network’s slate of programming over the past year or so. I have watched at least a half-dozen episodes of every series USA Network has aired in the “Characters Welcome” era (which began in 2005) and while I’ve come to a number of hopefully intelligent and useful deductions in the thesis project itself, I wanted to discuss something a bit more broad and related to the typical work I do here on TVS, something that came to mind as I was editing a chapter this past weekend.
My thought is this: White Collar is far and away the best scripted program USA Network has aired in the “Characters Welcome” era (and likely ever, I don’t have much of a connection to Le Femme Nikita or Silk Stockings, but your mileage on Pacific Blue may very). I like a number of the network’s sunny, escapist, but not frivolous fare (Burn Notice and Psych in particular), yet there are a number of reasons that help make White Collar the best of them all. Some of those quality traits happened on purpose and at least one might have been luck. However, the point still remains.
I would argue (and do in my thesis, in case you care *) that in all USA Network programming, you can find three things: An emphasis on the lead Character(s) – marked with the capital-C as a short-hand way to define USA Network’s unique, skilled individuals – a breezy, escapist atmosphere and a reliance on the kind of never-ending quest narrative arcs that I have written about here on the web site before. There are other important elements of the USA Network brand and programming formula, but those are the three most important, I would argue.
Generally speaking, USA Network’s series use these elements together in mostly the same ways. Psych might be more overtly comedic than Royal Pains and Burn Notice might be more interested in using the ongoing quest arc as a device than either of those former series, but the similarities are still readily present across USA Network’s stable of scripted content. I’m not here to declare this formulaic pattern as a failure or a success (though there is no way to declare anything but a success from a development and ratings perspective), or to claim that White Collar succeeds above everything else on USA Network because it ignores this formula. The same patterns are visible within White Collar just the same. But what makes it succeed above everything else on USA Network are the subtle, but important wrinkles Jeff Eastin and his writing staff add to the formula.
Although White Collar places much of the focus on its lead Characters, attempts to celebrate fun, style and general coolness and the search for answers to whatever that (half) season’s big question is, the series works on another level because it takes those three typical USA Network elements and complicates them much further than the rest of the network’s lot.
For a smooth-talking criminal mastermind, Neal Caffrey is a legitimately complex individual. Neal, like all USA Network Characters, wants to do the right thing, help those in need and solve the big mysteries that haunt him (like who killed Kate or why she was killed, etc.), but unlike most other USA Network Characters, Neal also has depth past those three initial traits. Burn Notice’s Michael is the only other Character that comes close to Neal on the compelling scale, and Michael is a fairly straight-forward guy: He wants to find out who/how/why he was burned and he wants to save people.
Neal is a surprisingly complex and curious person whose journey between both sides of the law continually alters his perspective on everything from the case of the week to what kind of personal ideologies he wants to follow. His desire to do the right thing is always in conflict with his similar desire to show off just how smart and cunning he can be. You get the sense that each decision to go one way or the other actually matters for Neal, and for those around him. It rarely feels like his actions are manipulated by the writers to create larger tensions and in the one case that it was, when it appeared he broke Peter’s trust and stole the treasure, the writers quickly made great strides in exploring his inner conflict, as if they were paying penance for such a dumb cliffhanger by giving the audience quality character shading.
Keeping with the Characters for a moment, White Collar does a very solid job of developing those around Neal more than the typical USA Network offering. Peter deserves more than “supporting” character billing, but he, Elizabeth and Mozzie are all more fleshed out than one might expect from a basic cable procedural. More importantly, I feel like we learn more about White Collar’s characters through their actions than some of the forced plotting that other USA Network series try. For example, Burn Notice doesn’t necessary “develop” Sam Axe unless there’s a case built around one of his old buddies and those situations, while often entertaining, almost require a slew of needless exposition about Sam’s time with them in Columbia or whatever.
And with more developed, complex Characters, White Collar is able to surpass the usual escapist, lightweight rhythms of the USA Network brand by pushing the narrative forward and making sure that those forward developments actually impact Neal, Peter and sometimes other individuals as well. Whereas so many of USA Network’s series drag out big narrative questions across entire series runs (hello, Monk) and only stop to provide temporary answers that create false stakes (hola, Burn Notice and Suits), White Collar’s narrative has moved at a sufficient pace. Season one was a bit weighed down by all the Kate drama and I thought the last-second swerve suggesting Neal gamed Peter over the treasure at the end of season two created all sorts of issues, but at least the story moved forward in a purposeful manner. When the series began, I assumed the whole story would be about Kate. Thankfully, that did not happen.
Again though, while I might have some problems with what or how the series built to specific twists or cliffhangers, White Collar knows how to make me understand why those twists or cliffhangers were needed on a Character level. Kate’s death forced Neal to re-evaluate a path he had already begun to re-evaluate before she went boom and ending up with the treasure caused all sorts of internal strife as to what kind of person Neal actually wanted to be (I’m thinking of the great, albeit on-the-nose line from Peter: “You can either be a con or a man, you can’t be both.”). And once Neal finally decided to tell Peter about the treasure once Elizabeth was captured, Peter’s enraged reaction was legitimately powerful. Tim DeKay did a tremendous job with those scenes, but past events and the nature of that relationship meant Peter’s anger came from this complicated place of hurt, confusion and admiration. By the end of the episode, everything didn’t go back to normal just because Elizabeth was saved, either. Neal’s choices have an impact; they alter his future and his relationships in the present.
Overall, White Collar‘s focus on Character development and relationships has a strong influence on the entire series. There’s a sense of heart and emotion to the proceedings that isn’t really present across any other USA Network program or on few other procedurals on television. We can tell that the people actually care about one another and when the plot dictates that they do stupid or awful things to one another, the narrative doesn’t let it go. The story moves forward, but the relationships have to struggle to do so in the same fashion.
I would never suggest that White Collar presents us the kind of character depth that we see in television’s great dramas. However, I would argue that the series is much better at developing its leads and using narrative progression to reflect the importance of Character relationships than anyone gives it credit for. Perhaps the series lucked into some of this thanks to the fantastic casting of Matthew Bomer and Tim DeKay, who are really quite wonderful as individual performers* and as a pair, but the writing is still proficient and strong in areas that most series of its ilk really are not. Characters aren’t just welcome on White Collar, they actually matter too.
*DeKay and Bomer are probably the two best individual actors on USA Network, right? Mary McCormack is strong and Patrick J. Adams is a SAG nominee after all, but I don’t really see anyone else on the network who turns in as strong as work on a consistent basis as these two.