White Collar E.P. Jeff Eastin on Blue Skies, Rocky Friendships, and When Crime Is Beautiful

For the ever-increasing number of viewers who've been paying attention these last three seasons, White Collar has pulled off a neat trick: Turning a glossy, skin-deep procedural into one of the more heartfelt, feel-good, and culturally celebratory hours on television. In a way, White Collar is Neal Caffrey is Matt Bomer: captivating on first glance and able to get away with basically anything. Insane stunts, inventive heists, intentional humor. Far from a run-of-the-mill showcase for Rich People Problems, White Collar's strengths are its relationships; between Neal's and Peter's perfect (and perfectly troubled) friendship to a central marriage that rivals Coach and Tami Taylor's, it's hard not to like and root for these people every step of the way.

Recently White Collar creator and executive producer Jeff Eastin took some time to discuss why exactly this show is SO appealing. (You know, aside from its Matt Bomer's face.) He and I also talked about the philosophy behind the USA Network's visual style, plus exactly how much thought goes into something as seemingly minor as Diana's love life. [SPOILERS AHEAD]

Although White Collar has been pretty solid from the get-go, Season 3 felt like you were really hitting your stride. Does it feel that way from your end as well?

Yeah, I think so. I think our Season 3 finale was probably the strongest episode we've ever done. I still have a soft spot for the pilot, but that was probably my favorite episode.

USA Network has a pretty distinctive sensibility. What in particular about White Collar lends itself so well to the USA slate?

With USA, they're really known for their "blue sky" shows, and when I went in to pitch the show, I'd previously gone and talked to Matt Nix—creator of Burn Notice—and I said, "What is 'blue sky' exactly?" Because there's a lot of debate about what that meant. And he said, "Literally, if you walk outside and the sky is blue, point the camera at it." And I finally realized that he's right about that. What makes White Collar a good USA show is that it's really a lot of wish fulfillment: It's a fun place to go and relax. USA's are usually not the dark and depressing shows. FX does an amazing job with that, Showtime—there's a lot of networks who can really bring the dark and do it beautifully and brilliantly, and I think the power of USA is it's kind of—call it "escapist," I guess. Because people want to go there.

For whatever reason with White Collar, we've kind of evolved into this family-friendly show. I'm surprised at how many parents have told me that they'll watch the show with their kids, and that wasn't by design. We really just sat down and said, "Let's try to make a good show." And what surprised me the most is that USA really encouraged the fact that we wanted to do something and try to make it as smart as we could. We can quote Thoreau, we can spend time on Degas, and all sorts of other brilliant painters and sculptors, and the audience actually digs it. I think we probably play chess on a regular basis more than most shows on TV. I was surprised that the audience really came to that and liked it. I think just the chemistry between Matt Bomer and Tim DeKay is really amazing. And I think all those factors, plus the fact that we get to shoot New York as New York. Bonnie Hammer—head of the network—told me when we first started this, she said, "I'm gonna let you go to New York, because no matter what else happens you guys can step out the door and point the camera and you're going to get New York." And I'd told them that I wanted to shoot it differently—most cop shows go for that dirty, gritty feel, but I said, "No, let's shoot in New York and make it beautiful New York, postcard New York." And I think all those things combined to make a show that people, especially USA audiences, really seem to enjoy.

Sometimes that picturesque postcard quality can be kind of hilarious, though. Like that brightly lit strip club scene toward the end of Season 3. Is the "blue sky" mandate something that can be an obstruction, or does it encourage you to created heightened reality in certain situations?

I would say that the club scene is a good example of where USA would've been fine had we gone a little seedier with that one, for example, so that was probably on us. But the great thing about USA is they really don't push. Especially lately, their mandate has really been to kind of take the shows edgier. When we first came out we weren't particularly edgy. Burn Notice was edgier and Suits is definitely edgier and the new pilot I just finished up for them is definitely edgier. They're trying to take it a little bit more in that direction. So their greatness is they know who their audience is and they're very protective of characters.

At this point I wouldn't necessarily want to take White Collar into a much darker region. You know, seeing scenes of Mozzie shooting heroin or anything like that. It's not what the show was when we created it and we're doing pretty good for the model that we created. So in terms of USA there's not really a time where I felt restricted by that. And part of it was my pitch to them. They were a little concerned at the beginning that white collar crime wouldn't have enough going for it. Because it seems kind of boring. And what I sort of retorted with was, what I love about white collar crimes, and especially art crime, is it's the one place where the crime itself can be beautiful. You know, if you can forge a Picasso, that's pretty fantastic. Versus, you know, smuggling cocaine in a surfboard or something. And that became really kind of a mantra for us, just in terms of really looking for things that are really beautiful and trying to find that in the characters and the crimes and the scenery.

I remember when they were first building Neal's apartment on the stage, we'd modeled it after a real place in Tudor City that we'd filmed, and there are those two big griffins that are out on his patio. And I remember walking in and two of the scenics had these saws and they were carving those big griffins out of foam and they had some Yo-Yo Ma playing. It was just this beautiful classical music and the guys were up there kind of humming along to it and carving these things. And at the time our production designer said, "I love being on a show where we can do this and it's totally acceptable." And that's what I really love about the show: We can play in this high-end world and we can still get decent numbers doing it.

White Collar is essentially a procedural with elements of serial mythology. How do you approach the problem of maintaining it as something we know and love while also shaking things up with cliffhanger twists and whatnot? Like, how do you make the viewer believe that a premise-rattling event COULD occur while also maintaining the procedural aspect?

Well, that's probably the hardest part of the show of all. Have you seen the new episodes?

I've seen the opener. I knew there'd be at the very least a temporary change of venue. How do you walk the balance between temporary and permanent?

It's tough. I went in and pitched the end of Season 3, which was—I'm so glad USA let us do it—that last shot of Neal where we hold almost a solid minute on just his face. And we knew he was going to flee. And I remember walking out after hearing the network going, "Great, we love it, it's like The Graduate, we dig it." So, we're walking out afterward and the head of the studio says to me, "You better have not just destroyed the show." And I was like, "No, no, no, I promise you we'll figure out a way to get Neal back. At some point." [Laughs]

Because even in Season 1 people were saying, "Oh, forget the anklet, just let Peter and Neal be friends and solve crimes." There are a lot of shows on TV where they do that, so for us it's always been that constant challenge. But I think the show really works the best when the guys— especially when Neal's doing something behind Peter's back and Peter's a little suspicious of it. You know, I love the scenes where they have this great banter and then Neal will leave the room and Peter's eyes will narrow, because he knows Neal is up to something. For four years we've done a pretty good job of kind of living in that area between the guys. And the real challenge every year gets to be: How do we maintain that? Because if we go too far and they're just buddies, you lose all the tension and a lot of the relationship stuff between the guys. But on the other hand, if you take it too dark and make them too angry at each other, it's really hard to peel back from that. So that's always sort of our constant challenge.

Can we expect to see Elizabeth getting herself involved more in cases this season?

Yeah. She definitely does. We lost Tiffani for one season when she had [her daughter] Harper, and then she came back and said, "Okay guys, I'm ready to work again!" She looks fantastic this year and we've been trying to really kind of push her into those situations. And that's always a tough one too, because on one hand you don't want Peter to look irresponsible for putting his wife in danger, but at the same time it's always fun to throw her in. Especially with Mozzie, they seem to make a really good team. So we've been trying to do it, especially this year with some of the distrust that happens between Peter and Neal, especially as we get closer to the midseason. You'll see Elizabeth take a more active role and actually kind of being on Neal's side when it comes to Neal and this pursuit of figuring out who he is by figuring out who his family was. And Elizabeth feels a little bit for him and actually kind of sneaks behind Peter's back a little bit to kind of help Neal in that quest. And it doesn't sit well with Peter.

I thought the reveal of Diana's engagement to another woman was so natural and no-big-deal. Have you gotten any strong feedback from that plotline or was no big deal behind the scenes as well?

I don't know. It was kind of my call. They had asked us if we could do a gay wedding on the show because of the New York law [legalizing gay marriage]. We hadn't really pursued that type of personal story a lot, and I felt that it was just way too soon to try to do something like that with a character we'd seen once. So, I just started thinking about personal relationships and I talked to some friends and that idea kind of—having this moment where, I think she says it kind of nicely on the show, "It wasn't an option and suddenly it is an option now and I'm kind of thinking it over again."

And actually you'll see this year, the way we play it is—well, this is a little bit of a spoiler—Diana finally makes a decision during one of the cases that she thinks she needs to go explore the world a little bit more. And we actually have that built into a case, which is actually a pretty good one, where she falls a little bit for the bad guy—well, bad girl in this case—and that doesn't work out for obvious reasons. Somebody's going to be in jail... But it kind of gives her the insight. She comes to Neal and they discuss it. I think personally it's a good direction to go, but White Collar is not really ripped from today's headlines, we don't do a lot of political stuff. Just to kind of force that in quick I thought would've looked kind of weird for the show. But if we take our time with it and really build it out, I think it could end up being something that could be kind of cool.

I don't know what we're ALLOWED to say about Season 4, but I'm interested to see how you would tease the season overall?

Well, look, everybody knows we're going to an island, pretty much. I've Tweeted about that, so everybody knows we've gone off campus for a couple of episodes. For me it's really Neal and Mozzie have fled to this island and it's really about how Peter... Mekhi Phifer's character comes in to be in pursuit of Neal and Peter has no choice but to really go and try and find him first. We spend two episodes down there and ultimately the return to New York leaves Peter in a bad place. That nod he gave Neal at the end of last season will end up costing him quite a bit. And it causes some major havoc in his career that won't really be shaken out until almost the midseason.

White Collar returns for Season 4 on Tuesday, July 10 at 9pm on USA.

Portraits of USA's Characters by Photographer Nigel Parry

Comments (5)
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Jul 11, 2012
I'm appreciative of Easton's answer regarding how they and USA as a whole are often unrealistically stylish and beautiful. As much as I know that's what USA is going for and I do often find myself liking that about the network and its shows (especially as summer programming), I also sometimes find myself questioning how much I actually like USA shows because of it. So I like his answer about the "blue sky" and how it's really about wish fulfillment.
Jul 10, 2012
I appreciated Eastin's candor about balancing the audience's expectations and shaking up the status quo even while I doubt the premise of the question. I certainly don't watch a TV series with any "need" to feel the status quo could be shaken up. As for White Collar itself, I find Diana having a tattoo weirder than her being a lesbian.
Jul 10, 2012
MATT BOMERRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

FINALLY! One of the best shows with the most beautiful actor on TV!

Hope so much that Price will recap it! Just a little review with 100000 photos or gifs of MB's face will be the best for me!
Jul 10, 2012
You forgot the most important question of all...will Sharif Atkins ever be a fully-credited main cast member?
Jul 10, 2012
So excited to have White Collar back! I can't wait to see the new episodes. Thanks for the interview!