If you are not watching White Collar, you are missing some of the best television on television.
White Collar is fantastic. It's the first show in a while I'm not semi-ashamed I'm watching. And I am here to explain to you (mild spoilers behind the cut!)why.
The basic premise of the show is that Neal Caffrey is a con man, and Peter Burke is the FBI agent who caught him after a three-year pursuit.
This is Neal and Peter. D'awww.
Neal wears hats like that a lot. Peter rarely wears those aviators.
For reasons we'll get into in a bit, Neal breaks out of prison with only a few months to go on a four-year sentence and Peter catches him again in about two hours. Neal doesn't want to go back on the inside so he and Peter strike a deal: he'll be released into Peter's custody with a house-arrest anklet on a two-mile radius, and he'll help Peter solve cases as a consultant.
Thing one I love about White Collar: despite the above, Peter is not the bumbling sidekick, the comic relief, or the idiot. Peter caught Neal twice. Peter can keep up with Neal and even surpass him if needed. Peter is intelligent, well-educated, usually socially adept, and perceptive.
Neal, on his first day of freedom, decides that his skanky bedroom in a rundown motel that is all his $700 a month rent allowance can afford is not enough. He immediately charms June, a wealthy widow he meets in a thrift store, into letting him rent her spare room in her elegant townhouse and wear her dead husband's exquisite designer suits.
Thing two I love about White Collar: The women are awesome. June is not oblivious, stupid, or a parodic sexually rapacious older woman. She knows Neal's a felon and she doesn't care, because she sees through his bullshit and he looks good in the suits she gave him. She's smart and elegant and she has excellent taste.
So here is the setup: Serious, studious, quietly brilliant Peter Burke holds the leash on charming, well-dressed, noisily clever Neal Caffrey, and together they fight crime.
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE.
Peter has a wife named Elizabeth.
Elizabeth has: 1. a life and job of her own, 2. a brain that works extremely well and 3. complete security in their marriage. She is also 4. gorgeous and 5. sensible, which leads to a potential 6. Totally into a threesome with her husband and his hot submissive coworker.
Six is edging into fandom territory, admittedly.
Other characters include Neal's friend and former accomplice Mozzie, who is all kinds of a criminal genius. Moz helps Neal in pursuit of Kate, Neal's girlfriend, who caused him to break out of prison when she dumped him and disappeared. Except she didn't actually dump him; she got pulled into some hinkey stuff that I won't talk about too much so as not to spoil the whole game. When Neal first finds her she's either being kept from him by force, or possibly playing him, nobody's sure.
(USA Network wanted to market this during the first season as a show about Neal's pursuit of Kate, but Kate is a MacGuffin. She sometimes drives the arc but she's not the point of the arc.)
Peter has two junior agents, Jones and Cruz, who don't get a ton of airtime but are super cool when they do. I like Jones a little bit more because he is clearly The Ianto (kicks ass, fetches coffee, and is generally Awesome).
Update: In Season Two, Cruz was written out and replaced with Diana, who appeared in the pilot but not in Season One. Diana is awesome; Peter's second-in-command, a little sarcastic, a lot no-bullshit, and willing to bend the rules when Peter needs her to.
OH WAIT THOUGH THERE IS MORE.
Here are the last two things I love about this show:
1. It isn't about stupid lie arcs.
2. It is openly about the power dynamics of Neal and Peter's relationship.
There are many, many shows that are about stupid lies. Most sitcoms run on stupid lies; most relationship tension in any given drama is at least partially fueled by them. A stupid lie arc occurs when a plot or arc is driven by a lie that doesn't have to be told, and that no rational person in real life would try to tell or sustain, or which is initially a good idea but eventually becomes absurd (see: Merlin). Here is a thing that happens on White Collar:
Elizabeth finds a woman's business card in Peter's pants pocket, with a phone number written on the back. Rather than sulk, scream, or stalk him during work hours, she asks him what it is. Peter fumbles a little but TELLS THE TRUTH: that the woman is a suspect in a case, and he had to flirt with her as an undercover agent. He keeps on TELLING THE TRUTH even though he's clearly anxious, while El looks at him with big sad eyes -- and then bursts out laughing and mocks him for like, three days for being all nervous and also because he's really bad at flirting.
El trusts him because she's secure in their relationship, and Peter tells her the truth because he is, too. The writers don't need to make them act stupid in order to make the show interesting. This is not an aberration for White Collar: this kind of thing is standard fare. Not one single episode so far has been driven by an unnecessary lie. It's refreshingly original.
The same holds true for Neal and Peter: they occasionally lie to each other but never to cover their own ass, because they trust each other.
Ah, now we come to the meat of the show. While it is in some respects a crime procedural, there's not much about DNA or fingerprints or interrogations or whatnot. Most of the show is concerned with how Peter and Neal solve puzzles and thus how their relationship works. At its most basic, this show is the story of Peter and Neal.
Whether you believe it's canon or fanon or untrue that Peter and Neal are sexually involved (possibly with El, certainly with her permission, because El's that cool), Peter and Neal have a strong, trusting D/s relationship that is clearly canonical. Peter has a dominant personality and as Neal's custodial agent he "owns" Neal -- he's responsible for him and Neal is answerable to him.
Peter understands Neal intimately, having spent three years chasing him, and sets out very explicit rules for Neal to follow with the inherent promise that if Neal obeys, Neal will be protected. Peter has never visibly or implicitly abused his power over Neal. Sometimes Peter sets challenges for Neal and sometimes they're dangerous, but if Neal succeeds he knows Peter will protect him and approve of him. In the last episode that aired when I originally wrote this, Neal explicitly said that Peter was the only person in the world he trusted, to Peter's face. (Granted Neal was drugged legless at the time, but he was still able to pick a pair of bed restraints, so I question just how out of it Neal really was when he said it.) Then Peter handcuffed Neal to a chair, told him "Don't pick that," and left Neal alone while he went off to take care of business. And Neal didn't pick the handcuffs.
Neal constantly tests the limit of his rules but very rarely goes beyond them, and only for extreme reasons. He never, ever disobeys a specific order Peter gives him: if Peter tells him to sit, he drops his eyes and sits immediately. If Peter tells him to stop what he's doing, Neal stops (unless he's testing him, in which case Peter jerks the metaphorical leash a little tighter and Neal heels immediately). This obedience extends in many cases to El, who exercises a much subtler form of dominance over him through 1. food and 2. Peter's desire to make El happy (see: Neal's desire to please Peter).
A great example of all this is when Neal is framed for forgery and arrested. (Technically he's always been a prisoner, but now he's removed from Peter's custody and faces prison again for breaking his "terms".) Neal escapes, but instead of going on the run he goes directly to Peter's home. Elizabeth gives Neal shelter and arranges for Peter, who is furious with Neal*, to speak with him.
Peter says to Neal, "You have one minute before I arrest you." Neal makes his case and Peter is convinced that Neal needs his help; he's already moved past the idea of arresting Neal by the time Neal abruptly stops talking and very seriously says "My minute is up." And then he waits for Peter to tell him what to do.
That is a fine, fine D/s relationship.
* Peter is not furious because Neal escaped. He's furious because in order to escape Neal risked his life dropping four stories from a window onto an awning (of a bakery known as THE GREATEST CAKE, for lulz).
In addition to awesome women, solid arcs, and fantastic interpersonal dynamics, this show has: gorgeous clothing, classic cars, treasure hunts, a reasonable amount of gratuitous shirtlessness, funny banter, and clever heists.
So what are you waiting for? White Collar airs on Tuesdays at 10pm, but USA seems to be running older episodes on the weekends. Dive in -- it's fun!