Date: October 19, 2009
“Monk.” “Burn Notice.” “Psych.” “Royal Pains.” “In Plain Sight.”
When it comes to launching new series, no one does it better these days, it seems, than USA Network, one of cable’s most reliable hit factories. The channel’s tag line — “Characters Welcome” — isn’t just a cute marketing phrase. It’s become a signature for a series of smart, compelling shows with quirky characters you want to visit week after week.
“White Collar,” a breezy new buddy comedy premiering Friday, Oct. 23, in the coveted post-“Monk” time period, seems destined to join that string of successes, based on the stylish pilot episode, which opens as convicted bond forger Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer, “Chuck”) escapes from prison. His flight startles Peter Burke (Tim DeKay, “Carnivale”), the buttoned-up FBI agent who had captured Neal after a long pursuit. After all, Neal — a model prisoner — had only three months left to serve on a four-year sentence. Soon, however, Peter discovers the truth: The love of Neal’s life, Kate Moreau, recently visited him in prison, then mysteriously vanished.
After Peter recaptures him, with no resistance, Neal talks his way into an audacious new gig, getting released from prison into Peter’s custody to help take down an elusive criminal mastermind known as the Dutchman, setting the scene for this comic odd couple to tackle a series of cases together. And in typical style, within hours of his release, Neal has charmed his way from the fleabag hotel in which Peter had stuck him (with an ankle bracelet) into a posh guest room with a rooftop view in the uptown Manhattan home of a wealthy widow (Diahann Carroll).
Bomer and DeKay click memorably together in this new series, but what sets “White Collar” apart from more routine fare is the underlying streak of romantic melancholy in Neal’s quest.
And that melancholy came out of a very personal place for series creator Jeff Eastin.
“I had just gone through a very painful divorce where my wife had simply up and disappeared on me,” he explains. “I mean, one day she was there, and the next day she was gone. I spent quite a bit of time trying to process that and quite a bit of time searching for her. That’s when I guess you need somebody else to pay for your therapy. I had been toying with how to process what had happened to me, which was the genesis of the Kate arc in the series.”
And it was that underlying emotional thread that first caught Bomer’s attention when he read the script.
“What always seemed so interesting to me was that Neal wasn’t just this smooth, savvy, cool, hyperintelligent guy,” the actor says. “He (also) was the real die-hard romantic who was looking for the love of his life. There is an emotional anchor to it that is really a throughline of why he is doing what he is doing. He is cooperating with the FBI so he can get closer to her.
“But there were other, more shadowy elements that also drew me to him. In a lot of ways he’s really like a 3-year-old. `No’ really isn’t in his vocabulary. He’s always testing his boundaries to see what he can get away with. His impulse control is lacking.”
Bomer says from the moment he and DeKay did an audition together, he felt a strong connection with the man who would become his co-star.
“The room was full of wonderful actors, but there was just something about Tim and the way that he understood this character, understood what is funny and interesting and real about Peter,” Bomer says. “Tim is a marvelous actor, and he also has this marvelous Midwestern sensibility to him, so everything seems to come from a really genuine and earnest place. There was something about that that really hit home with me. Not only is Peter this hard-nosed cop with very specific boundaries, but there was also this humanity about him that in some ways felt for Neal, realized he needs help. Peter knows there is hope for Neal.”
For his part, DeKay also thought that first reading with Bomer went very, very well, and he was frankly relieved to have a chance to work his comedy chops after back-to-back stints in two very dark HBO series: the eerie period piece “Carnivale” and the raw emotional drama “Tell Me You Love Me.”
“It’s nice to be working on a different muscle than I was using on those two shows,” he says, laughing. “I picked up the script and read it and thought, `Oh, I know this guy.’ There’s certainly something about Peter Burke that is similar to Tim DeKay. He reminded me of a lot of guys I went to college with who were accounting majors, and then the FBI got them work. I think maybe Peter Burke was an athlete in college, but I also think he’s a lot smarter than I am, frankly.”
While DeKay may shrug off the notion that his part is challenging, however, Eastin is having none of that.
“Tim plays a really good Everyman, the counterpoint to Neal, and the hard part is finding someone who can do that yet also has the kind of star power you need,” Eastin says. “We’ve seen this duo before, whether it’s in `48 Hours’ or `Catch Me if You Can.’ The real tough thing about Tim’s character is taking an FBI guy who could really just be a suit and turning him into someone who is really interesting and compelling in his own right. But Tim does that with style.”
And, DeKay adds, with a lot of fun, something for which he gives a lot of credit to USA Network’s savvy development team.
“I think USA has found that great balance of having different shows that are all about the characters, and the same is true of `White Collar,’ ” he says. “The heart of the show is how Neal and Peter get along. It’s nice to be an actor on a network whose tag line is `Characters Welcome.’ ”