What’s your perfect single episode of television, the one you turn to when you have time to watch one thing and want to know you’ll come out the other side confident you chose right?
Here’s mine: the pilot episode of White Collar. I very much like the whole six-season run of the show, but that first episode is a delight from start to finish. If you’re not familiar with White Collar, the basics are these: The show, which ran on the USA Network from 2009 to 2014, centers on an improbable-in-every-way con man who is released from prison on a tracking anklet to help a member of the FBI’s white-collar team solve crimes. But while those two characters—Neal Caffrey, played by Matt Bomer, and Peter Burke, played by Tim DeKay—receive top billing, the show is in important ways a love triangle, with the third point on the triangle occupied by Willie Garson’s Mozzie, Neal’s accomplice in crime.
None of that—Mozzie’s centrality to the show as time goes on, or the intensity that develops in Neal and Peter’s relationship—is fully formed in the pilot, though. Nor should it be. You want shows to change and deepen over time, right? But the pilot deftly establishes a whole web of relationships, situating Neal and Peter’s first cautious steps from respect in opposition to each other to alliance tempered with wariness, along with the first hint of Neal’s history with Mozzie, in the context of their relationships with Diana (Marsha Thomason) and Jones (Sharif Atkins), the agents who report to Peter; Peter’s wife Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen); and June (the great Diahann Caroll), Neal’s unorthodox landlady. Throughout, there’s also the silent image and the motivating memory of Neal’s ex-girlfriend Kate, who he escaped prison to find even though he had just months left on a four-year sentence.
A show that was just about Neal and Peter, or even Neal and Peter and Mozzie, would not have worked nearly as well season-over-season as White Collar did, but the pilot’s most important task is in making the relationship between Neal and Peter plausible. Or anyway, plausible within the context of a show in which the main character has every possible nonviolent criminal skill: He’s a forger and a thief and a con man and can identify an out-of-context bit of fiber clinging to someone’s suit and … probably a few other things I’m forgetting right now because they popped up to satisfy transient plotting purposes. Oh, and did I mention that he does all this while also being so astonishingly handsome that every now and then, you look at him and, even though he was onscreen two minutes earlier, are still a little startled that anyone can really look like that?
The pilot opens with three minutes of Neal breaking out of prison and getting into New York City on what initially looks like a joyride, before cutting to Peter and an FBI team being frustrated in the pursuit of a criminal. These are our first defining images of them—Neal beaming as he drives away in someone else’s classic convertible, Peter tense as his team tries to open a safe.
Despite opening the episode, Neal doesn’t speak more than a handful of words until nine minutes in, when Peter finds him definitely not joyriding, in the wake of finding that Kate is gone. But the sequence that really sets up their relationship comes after Peter arranges to have Neal temporarily released under his supervision to help catch that criminal, called the Dutchman. He deposits Neal at a grimy, infested hotel, telling him that it’s the only option available at the right price, and that if Neal finds something better for the same amount, he should take it. He then refers Neal to a thrift store to get a change of clothes, but, in predictable yet fairytale fashion (it’s often kind of a fairytale with Neal), Neal meets June as she brings her late husband Byron’s vintage suits to the thrift store. Cut to the next scene, where Peter arrives at the fleabag hotel to pick Neal up and finds that he’s moved—to June’s mansion. Neal is living in luxury, visibly delighted by his circumstances but trying to act blasé, and Peter is struggling between bemusement and real outrage.
“You’re upset,” Neal says. “Look, you tell me which rule I broke, and I will thumb it back to prison.”
“For starters …” Peter grimaces, pausing, trying to put his outrage into words. “I work hard, I do my job well, and I don’t have a $10 million view of Manhattan that I share with a 22-year-old art student while we sip espresso.”
“Why not? Because I’m not supposed to. The amount of work I do equals certain things in the real world, not cappuccino in the clouds.”
That sets up a key part of the tension between them. Peter is all about the rules—not just the ones written down but the ones he seeks out in the way of the world. That his work often involves wealthy victims of white-collar crimes who do not work as hard as he does escapes him, because the rules say they have what they have. Neal is about whatever he thinks he can get away with, which, given his assortment of talents and blessings, is usually a lot. But what begins to bind them together in this episode is their real intellectual engagement in cracking mysteries. Both of them light up at the chance to figure out a problem, Neal with the professional interest of a longtime criminal who really loved what he did, and Peter with the zeal to track down his target. This is in important ways a show about particular kinds of skilled work, on both sides of the law, and the fulfillment its characters get from a job well done.
Their interaction in these early scenes really sets the tone for the two men’s relationship, and specifically, it locates them in the tradition of heterosexual romantic tension. The knowing glances, the amusement laced with suspicion, the sheer chemistry that crackles between them is what you’d normally expect to see from the leading man and woman who engage in a protracted will-they-or-won’t-they. It’s just that here, the question is whether Neal will try to escape, whether Peter will ever trust Neal, and whether they can overcome their oppositional history and structural roles to love each other as much as they are so clearly poised to do.
Despite all that, and the presence of Mozzie to complete the love triangle, White Collar is, on the surface, a heterosexual show. Peter loves his wife (and she is in every episode of the show) and Neal, once he gets past his obsessive pursuit of Kate, moves on to other women. (Bomer is gay, but entirely able to play straight, as the show repeatedly calls on him to demonstrate—even if Neal’s most intense emotional relationships are with Peter and Mozzie.)
There are a few missteps in the episode, and interestingly, two of them have to do with what turns out to be one of White Collar’s strengths: its treatment of women. First, there’s an extraneous woman for Neal and Peter to briefly waggle their eyebrows at each other over. It’s a pointless moment, and one that gets dropped from memory quickly—the woman in question is presented as a likely recurring character, then only reappears once, two years into the show’s run. Second, and less of an active misstep than a missed opportunity, Elizabeth Burke initially shows up as the dutiful wife ignored by her husband because of the demands of his job, an opportunity to show that the tough FBI guy is a bumbling disaster in his personal life. The pilot certainly doesn’t present her as an airhead or a joke, but Elizabeth Burke turns into one of the show’s reliably solid characters in a way that’s not quite imaginable based on that episode.
It’s especially interesting to see these two little fumbles in the opening episode in the larger context of a show that turns out to be great to its women characters, who get to be complex and tough and vulnerable and smart and funny. They may not get the time or development of the three main male characters, but they are never afterthoughts. And White Collar is always at least as quick to deploy male beauty, in the form of Bomer’s Neal, in service of a grift or undercover assignment (potayto-potahto, at times) as it is to use its women for that purpose.
The rest of the series simultaneously digs into the characters of Neal, Peter, and Mozzie, along with Elizabeth, Diana, and Jones, making them more and more interesting, and has more time for slip-ups. There are plot arcs I could really do without, which is why I’ve watched this one jewel of an episode maybe a dozen times and most of the rest of the series only two or three times. (“Only.”) But if you’re looking for a show, White Collar is worth your consideration.
So there you have a lot of words about my favorite single episode of television. (So many words.) What’s yours, and why?
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