It’s too bad that USA won’t be bringing Burn Notice back until January, because it now has a BN timeslot partner far more suitable than Royal Pains ever was. The pilot for the network’s new series White Collar was directed by Bronwen Hughes, who has worked on terrific episodes of Burn Notice and Breaking Bad in the past (as well as The L Word, Hung and, yes, Royal Pains), and Hughes brings to the first White Collar a potent combination of grit and levity. This is a pulp series with a fun concept, yet it doesn’t shortchange the characters or the milieu.

Matt Bomer plays Neal Caffrey, a charming con artist with a wealth of criminal knowledge and an eye for every angle. The White Collar pilot opens with Caffrey escaping from prison and drawing the attention of FBI agent Peter Burke (played by Tim DeKay), who’s nabbed Caffrey before. Using what he knows about Caffrey, Burke abandons the white-collar crime he’s working and tracks Caffrey down. But when Caffrey gets wind of Burke’s case—a tricky affair involving counterfeit bonds—he offers to help, in exchange for a kind of limited parole. So this is their deal (and the gimmick for the show): Caffrey promises to wear an ankle bracelet with a tracking device, and to supply Burke with his expertise in high-level chicanery for the remaining four years of his prison sentence, all while spending his spare time trying to figure out some way to escape.

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The case in the pilot is well-plotted and enjoyably luxe, all about how the vanity of forgers helps Burke get his man (played by the inevitable Mark Sheppard, who never met a basic cable series he didn’t want to guest star on). Caffrey pitches in by picking up some tips from his best underworld buddy Mozzie (played by Willie Garson), who sneaks him info via hidden notes in cigarette filters. It’s all very cloak-and-dagger, what with the secret messages and international crime rings and all, yet the White Collar pilot resolves in a cleverly down-to-Earth way, as Caffrey devises a scheme to get Burke access to the villains’ lair.

The first episode lays out the tone and the stakes of the series cleanly and efficiently. The jazzy soundtrack and luminous colors recall Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean movies, but White Collar is played with a little more nuance. Case in point: Shortly after Caffrey gets released into Burke’s custody, the con man meets a suave dowager named June (played by the divine Diahann Carroll) at a thrift store, and persuades her to let him stay in her elegant guest bedroom, with its stunning views of New York City (and of June’s sexy granddaughter). Burke is irritated by this turn of events, because he’s a believer in hard work and just desserts, not Caffrey’s money-for-nothing ethos. But Caffrey only seizes the opportunity to better his situation because he knows how, not because it brings him any lasting pleasure. All things being equal, he’d rather take it on the lam and live as a fugitive, especially if it means he can find his ex, Kate, who left him under some as-yet-unexplained duress.

None of this is exactly groundbreaking television, granted. The “to catch a thief” premise has been a staple of movies, radio and TV for generations (all the way back to Boston Blackie, at least), and USA’s Burn Notice has gotten a lot of mileage out of a hero with specialized knowledge and a personal mission. But the chemistry between Bomer and DeKay is strong, and playing Burke’s dogged sense of fairness against Caffrey’s “you take what you can get” attitude gives White Collar some amusing tension and just the barest hint of a theme. The pilot episode plays up the contrasts in subtle, artful ways, from Burke’s frustration that his Harvard-educated FBI colleagues don’t know the basics of crime-solving to the way Caffrey can look casual and cool even with his flashing ankle-tracker in full view. The characters and the situation have a lot of potential. If the writers and directors can keep coming up with episodes as entertaining as the first one, White Collar could have a good long run.

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Grade: B+

Stray observations:

-I’m not too sure about Matt Bomer’s perpetual chin-scruff. I think TV producers too often think that stubble = cool. To me it just makes heroes look like slobs.

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-I’m also not too sure about Tiffani Thiessen as Burke’s long-suffering wife, always annoyed—but not too shrill about it—that her husband is more dedicated to his job than to her. I liked the subplot in this episode that had Caffrey analyzing Mrs. Burke’s records for clues as to what Burke should do for their anniversary, but I don’t think sticking in one or two scenes a week of Thiessen waiting impatiently at home is going to do much for White Collar.

-On the other hand I did like Burke’s no-nonsense lesbian colleague Diana, played by Marsha Thomason (a.k.a. Naomi from Lost). The bad news is that I’ve read she disappears from the show in future weeks. The good news is that she’s reportedly replaced by Middleman fave Natalie Morales.

-We have no plans to cover this show on a regular basis, but if White Collar stays as strong as the pilot, it could potentially get added to The TV Club line-up by the end of its first season. Stay tuned.

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