The USA Network has carved out a unique brand in the cable world; its distinctive programming features shows that are "aspirational, blue skies, upbeat, optimistic and character-driven," in the words of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Cable Studios chairman Bonnie Hammer. 

 

This approach or "brand filter" as its called, produced shows like Monk, Burn Notice and, two years ago, White Collar, a crime drama featuring the inspired partnership of a con-man, Neal Caffrey, with FBI agent, Peter Burke, who captured him and now uses him as a consultant to the White Collar division as he works off the balance of his prison sentence.

 

Neal, played by Matt Bomer, is a consummate forger, pickpocket, and all around non-violent hustler whose charm and fashionable attire hide his criminal tendencies.  The only person smart enough to track him down and catch him, Peter, (Tim DeKay), is a straight arrow but knows it takes a thief to catch other thieves.  (The Hitchcock classic To Catch a Thief, and the old Robert Wagner series, It Takes a Thief, are both antecedents to White Collar.) 

The core of White Collar is the partnership of Neal and Peter as they investigate crimes where Neal is regularly exposed to the temptation to follow his criminal tendencies, like having an alcoholic become a brewery inspector.  Old habits die hard but Peter has almost a sixth sense about his consultant's vulnerabilities.

In the first season, the relationship was complicated by Neal's search for his old girlfriend that pulled the con man from the straight and narrow and into a series of schemes to determine her whereabouts all while helping solve various crimes for the FBI.  Although Bomer's handsome mug is the "face" of the show's marketing campaign, on the show, it's an equal partnership as Peter plays wise cat to Neal's clever mouse. 

Neal's background of beautiful but shady ladies, fine wines, clothes and other likely ill-gotten goods contrasts with Peter's stable home life with Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen), his gorgeous and understanding spouse and their domestic tranquility exerts a quiet pull on Neal's wandering star.  Assisting Neal in his sometimes less than strictly legal activities is his old partner in crime, Mozzie (Willie Garson) who provides the contacts, equipment, other questionable resources and much comic relief and who distrusts Peter, whom he calls "Mr. Suit."  In fact, trust is the running theme of the series.  At times, Peter wonders if he can trust Neal at all, and Neal, who lives in a world of lies and facades, wants to trust Peter, an anchor who represents values he's never embraced. 

The series, created by Jeff Eastin, who writes many of the scripts, is one of the best plotted shows I've ever seen.  It's very hard to write smart characters; it's easier to write stories in which characters are surprised by another's actions, but the game of wits between Neal and Peter is exciting because they are supposed to be on the same side and outwit the criminals they are pursuing while at the same time being cagey with each other. This uneasy dynamic keeps the show from becoming another crime procedural.

Many times Neal is undercover when an FBI investigation go awry and he has to think his way out of a dangerous predicament.  Likewise, Peter usually suspects when Neal is plotting something on the side to help in his own private investigations and has to anticipate when it might hurt his favorite consultant. The electronic ankle bracelet Neal must wear for the FBI to keep tabs on him symbolizes the tether keeping him from too much mischief. This is a rare show where there are really two leads who balance each other in their dueling motivations. 

Film scholar Robert Ray has written of the two classic archetypal American heroes, the official hero, the champion of the law, embodied here by Peter and the outlaw hero, like many a western hero, in this case Neal.  Using Casablanca's two male heroes as the culmination of these two types, Ray uses Paul Henried's Victor Lazlo, the white suited idealist crusader working with Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine, as the crafty and less-than-legal operator; both men come to respect each other and both are necessary to resist the forces of evil in their time. 

Following in this great narrative tradition, Neal knows deep down he need's Peter's friendship and Peter would like Neal to forswear the attractions of the dark side of the street and stay on the side of the angels.  In a rare unguarded moment, Neal tells Peter, "you're the only person I trust."  The writers have managed to keep the delicate balance by not hurrying Neal into a reformed life—he will not go quietly into the light. 

As performed by Matt Bomer, Neal seems all about appearances--he uses his brilliant blue eyes and broad smile to charm his way through life and into the pockets and safes of his law breaking marks.  But it's wrong to look at Bomer's performance as that of just another pretty boy. 

 

Con men must be able to smoothly distract and seduce their way past obstacles and its quite believable that Bomer's Neal Caffrey could do this.  Tim DeKay's Peter manages to be both alternately righteous and funny in his roles as Special Agent and befuddled husband.  The deft performances and chemistry between the two leading men grounds the show's appeal.  

But adding to the appeal of the entire cast is the location shooting in New York City.  I watched the first season on Blu-Ray discs and never has the oft-filmed metropolis looked more gorgeous.  The city should pay the show a stipend for promoting tourism.  This is a series that is best watched in high definition. 

As last week's third season premiere launched a new story arc, we will see Neal once more pulled between his old ways and his new friends.  Perhaps because its subject is white collar crime, there's not much violence and even less sex but lots of intrigue and suspense. Combining the best elements of caper movies and buddy shows, white collars and blue skies are always in season when they look this smart.  

*This article first published 6/17/2011

*Watch White Collar Tuesdays, 9 pm, on USA