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Television Review

‘White Collar’ pair are a comfortable fit

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 23, 2009

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On the surface, there’s nothing special about “White Collar.’’ The latest in a long line of lighthearted crime dramas from USA, including “Monk,’’ “Burn Notice,’’ and “Psych,’’ the show follows a by-the-book FBI agent and a charming young con artist who team up to catch white-collar criminals. Yup, another odd-couple buddy set-up in the manner of “48 Hrs.’’

But beyond the formulaic outline, “White Collar,’’ which premieres tonight at 10, is actually one of the best new shows of the season. The tone is effortless and agile, as it toggles from comedy to intrigue and back. The chemistry between the leads - Tim DeKay as agent Peter Burke and Matt Bomer as the slippery Neal Caffrey - is comfortable and fresh. And creator Jeff Eastin has cleverly woven in colorful subplots around the periphery, including Peter’s awkward marriage to Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen) and Neal’s nutty street contact (Willie Garson).

The title and the New York City setting might lead you to expect a more condemning agenda inspired by the Bernard Madoff scandal, as well as by the Wall Street businessmen who’ve benefited from others’ suffering during the recession. But the bad guys on “White Collar’’ are cartoonish enough not to be believable or scary. The show isn’t a vindictive response to the state of global economics and upscale crime so much as an escapist lark, an excuse to watch two men bicker and banter and bond.

The premiere, which is 75 minutes long, revolves around a familiar counterfeit-art scheme as it puts the central relationship into motion. Peter pursues a deal to work with Neal, who has been serving a jail sentence, because he’s tired of his thick-headed Ivy League colleagues at the FBI. DeKay plays Peter’s grudging acceptance of Neal and Neal’s illegal ways with appealing hints of grumpiness. He never turns Peter into the caricature of an officious FBI agent, which so many other actors might have done unwittingly. DeKay has been around for years, most notably as the bizarro Jerry on “Seinfeld’’ but also in HBO’s “Carnivale’’ and “Tell Me You Love Me,’’ and he ably builds Peter into a dimensional character.

In one scene tonight, the writers seem to have given DeKay a “Seinfeld’’ in-joke. When the rakish Neal refers to flirtation with women as a dance, Peter responds curtly, using similar words to the “Seinfeld’’ Soup Nazi: “No dancing for you.’’ The “White Collar’’ script isn’t deep or particularly clever, but it’s filled with appealingly wry flourishes.

As the criminal who can talk his way into and out of any situation, Bomer takes some getting used to. He’s a little too pretty and too confident to warm up to, as he finagles his way from a room at a fleabag hotel to the spare bedroom of a wealthy eccentric played by Diahann Carroll. But by the end of the premiere, he and DeKay have developed a winning rapport that brings out some of his more substantive and likable qualities. Also, an ongoing plotline involving Neal’s missing ex-girlfriend helps to humanize him.

I can’t say that you’ll be blown away by “White Collar.’’ Like the similarly jaunty “Burn Notice,’’ it’s not that kind of show. But you may well be gladdened by its breezy spirit. USA has created an appealing niche expressly for viewers who love crime drama but aren’t up for the dark explorations of the “CSI’’ shows. They want an hour of action, laughs, mystery, cinematic style, and, above all, unreality.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

WHITE COLLAR Starring: Matt Bomer, Tim DeKay, Tiffani Thiessen, Willie Garson

On: USA

Time: Tonight, 10-11:15

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