In my conversation last week with White Collar creator and executive producer Jeff Eastin, he explained the show's popularity in surprisingly simple terms: Much of its appeal is essentially wish fulfillment. To some degree ALL entertainment could be described that way, but on reflection I've never really wanted to be a criminal. And as nice-seeming as Neal Caffrey's elegant lifestyle appears, it looks like it'd be exhausting to maintain. So at first I wasn't convinced the wish-fulfillment angle explained why this show appealed to me so much, but then I realized that the real wish fulfillment is centered on Peter's character. That guy has the best life! He's got the coolest friend in Manhattan, his wife is just plain rad, and his job seems pretty exciting most of the time. Yeah, Peter is the audience surrogate and thesis statement of White Collar; his life is the one we should want, not Neal's. Which is not to say Neal doesn't have his own appeals.
Oh, welcome back, Neal! White Collar returned this week with its Season 4 premiere "Wanted," a big deviation from formula that was as relaxed as it was high-stakes. About six weeks had passed since Peter silently signaled Neal to flee the country and Neal had hopped a flight with Mozzie to some unspecified locale. Apparently Neal's absence had taken its toll on Peter (understandable!), not only because of Peter's mixed emotions toward Neal's escape, but also because Peter's bossman was still mad about it and assigning Peter only the worst cases. But Peter's sad and resigned attitude changed upon the arrival of an intimidating International Affairs Agent (Mekhi Phifer) with a reputation for bringing home criminals in body bags. Uh-oh, it looked like Neal was suddenly in more trouble than before!
As for Neal himself, he and Mozzie were hiding out on an island that looked A LOT like Puerto Rico but that we later came to find out was Cape Verde, an extradition-free paradise where the hats are fine and the baristas finer. Neal (operating under the alias of John Maine) was doing a GREAT job of blending in so far: gallivanting around the marketplace handing out cash to street musicians and fruit vendors while conspicuously romancing women and, you know, LOOKING LIKE Matt Bomer. Laying low, basically. Neal and Mozzie were also paying cash to a local ex-pat tycoon in exchange for safe harbor in town. If that sounds shady, that's because it WAAAASS. Never trust a cigar-chomping tycoon who accepts cash payments to pay off the local police; it's just bad times. On the upside, though, Neil was getting tons of good sand-castle-building time in, and his mini replica of Manhattan went a long way toward getting him some action with the hot local barista lady. If ladies love anything, it's immaculately constructed sandcastle skylines! Because LOOKING LIKE Matt Bomer just isn't enough these days?
Like all good federal agents, Peter brought his wife on a stakeout, in this case at the home of the gray-haired lady with whom Neal met up in the Season 3 finale. You know, whatsherface. The one who knew his parents. Anyway, after Peter knocked on her door and failed to convince her that he was one of the good cops, Elizabeth ended up going behind Peter's back and winning the lady over to the cause of helping Neal evade capture. Pretty soon this Ellen lady was spillin' the digits to Neal's super secret pager and Peter and Neal enjoyed their first phone conversation in a long time! And boy did they gab.
But Peter had more up his sleeve than just callin' to gossip with an old friend: He'd recorded the phone call and intended to use the recording to track down where Neal was. Diana and (newly minted series regular?) Jones came over for a highly preposterous sleuthing session in which they traced the sound of bells ringing on Neal's end to a specific church in Cape Verde. Good sleuthing! Except, whoops, technically what they did was called 'obstruction of justice' and pretty soon the Mekhi Phifer character was searching Peter's joint, and Peter ended up getting suspended from work. Poor Peter! Except, don't feel too bad for him because he immediately boarded a plan to go track down his dreamy bestie.
Unfortunately the evil agent beat Peter there and to add insult to injury, he enlisted tons of greedy locals to track down Neal and kill him if necessary. Well, he didn't say to kill him, exactly, but it was implied. At this point a child stole Peter's wallet and ran through the streets of Cape Verde only to lead Peter to Neal's hiding spot on a grotto somewhere, I don't know. But man if Peter didn't look like the HAPPIEST guy in the world!
Seriously, it was just this long, lingering, closed-eye, cheek-to-cheek hug. It's how ANY of us would hug Neal, be honest. But seriously, it was a touching moment for sure.
At this point Peter, Neal, and Mozzie scrambled for an escape route off the island. After running through the streets punching attackers in their faces, they eventually split up: Neal hopped on the back of the sexy barista's Vespa while Peter and Mozzie headed to the marina to bribe a captain or something. But when Neal swung by the shady cigar-chomping tycoon's place, it wasn't long before he realized he'd been sold out! That's when Mekhi Phifer arrived with a gun and we cut to black. Cliffhanger!
For an average episode of White Collar, "Wanted" was pretty different in a couple of important ways: No big crime, no elaborate heist, very little Peter-Neal banter. But the main thing it had going for it was the heartfelt longing between these characters, and how much we as an audience want to see everybody find their places and return to the status quo. It was a good status quo! So the temporary diversion into tropical paradise is a refreshing change of pace so far, but I'm definitely eager for the main partnership to get back to work. I love escapist entertainment where characters do their jobs competently. WHAT'S THAT LIKEEE?
P.S. Here's a photo gallery of Neal's most flattering close-ups. It's NSFB (not safe for brains!)
... Is Agent Collins kind of a jerk?
... Do YOU pay a 12-year-old village boy to run all your errands?
... Should Elizabeth just join the FBI already?
... Do you prefer Matt Bomer in dark suits or light suits?