You can't blame anyone who dismissed the first batch of original series produced by proudly middlebrow networks such as TNT and USA. Due to an inclination towards 'round-the-clock airings of "The Shawshank Redemption" and simpleton bait, they've given us little reason to expect much from their own offerings. The early results seemed to affirm this thinking, as the best either network could serve up were frilly procedurals centered around terminally quirky detectives and pucker-lipped, possibly hypoglycemic confessionistas.
Viewed both within and without that contextual framework, USA's "White Collar" proves a neat little surprise. No, it won't prompt viewers to recalibrate their opinion of the USA Network brand the way "Mad Men" did AMC, nor will it launch its creative team podium-ward on Emmy night. But "White Collar," more so than the featherweight "Burn Notice" before it, both recognizes the limitations of its easy-watchin' genre and plays off them.
As such, it poaches little from its USA or TNT predecessors, "Law & Order" or CBS' many soulless gimmick-guy procedurals. Instead, it offers a deadpan twist on the hour-long crime drama, mashing up the glibness of USA sibling "Psych" with the conspiratorial mirth of "Catch Me If You Can." The end product is deft mainstream entertainment, fine fare for a rainy night on the couch or a cross-country flight.
That sounds like a backhand compliment -- dismissing "White Collar" as a trifle best enjoyed when held captive at 20,000 feet -- but it isn't. In fact, executives from major broadcast and cable networks should advise their go-to creatives to study "White Collar." It serves as a refresher course on how to entertain without attempting to ensnare or enlighten.
"White Collar" transcends its too-cute hook, in which a lovelorn con gets released into the care of a staid, besmirked FBI agent, with the caveat that he must lend his decepto-crimey skills to help snare marginally menacing bad guys. It works because of the delicacy with which each character is shaded. Take the FBI agent, played by Tim DeKay of HBO's prematurely aborted "Carnivale." As opposed to his male-lead counterparts on any number of crime dramas, DeKay's fed isn't bored or beleaguered or bent on avenging past professional indiscretions and personal calamities. He's just some guy doing his job. Back stories are overrated.
Obviously some corners are cut in the interest of broadening the show's appeal. The con artist's charisma, for instance, is premised on his intricately mussed hair and propensity to rest his feet on every conference-room table he encounters. Similarly, the detectives are too pretty and their offices too sleek. Still, the dialogue ping-pongs back and forth with verve (asked about the FBI's policy towards gay agents, DeKay's character responds, "We don't ask and we don't care"). And on a personal level, I will support anything -- a procedural drama, a Broadway musical, a fake celebrity Twitter feed -- that showcases a broccoli-eating dog.
My first thought upon the conclusion of the "White Collar" pilot? That when NBC throws in the towel on its you-will-laugh-at-10-p.m.-because-our-survival-hinges-on-it experiment, the network should borrow "White Collar" from corporate sibling USA to air in its stead. Playfully rendered and accessible as a Dan Brown "book," the show would slide easily into the 10 p.m. hour and provide the kind of engaging lead-in local affiliates seem to want for their 11 p.m. newscasts.
The big takeaway here: prime-time dramas can be broad without being dumb. That we have to continually restate this Programming 101 tenet says volumes about how far off the rails mainstream entertainment has veered.