It seems like it was only Leap Day Eve that we last encountered Tuesday-night heroes Neal Caffrey and Peter Burke conspiring to help Neal flee New York and evade imprisonment. But then, White Collar rarely takes protracted breaks between seasons, which is fitting, given how fleetly the series moves from scene to scene, episode to episode. As premières go, “Wanted” finds creator Jeff Eastin and his crew operating at the peak of their storytelling powers. The premise of Peter fighting against time and bounty-hunting FBI baddy Kyle Collins (White Collar newcomer Mekhi Phifer) to find and rescue Neal is instantly riveting. It’s also a good deal more invigorating than watching cranky old Agent Kramer’s snail-like paperwork pursuit of Caffrey.
Of course, the fourth-season bow is also cluttered with cigar-chomping villains and other cartoon-like tropes, most of which are referenced directly by the characters themselves, and usually by Willie Garson’s smart-aleck Mozzie (now going under the alias Barry). Alas, that’s the bargain you get with White Collar: It’s a smart, pop-culture-savvy action/procedural hybrid, but it’s also outsized, and occasionally trips over clichés rather than subverting them.
The show’s tipping point into regular excellence hinges on the calculated lustiness of its leading man, and the organically nurtured chemistry between Bomer and DeKay. À la the triumphant camaraderie between former nemesis-turned-cautious allies Bill and Eric on True Blood, White Collar’s Caffrey and Burke are finally playing on the same team—except now, Peter has found himself on Neal’s turf. On leave from the department for withholding information on Neal’s whereabouts, and desperate to ensure Collins doesn’t track and kill his one-time consultant, Peter has essentially embarked on a rogue recovery mission. Albeit one that necessitates tropical climates, cool fruit cocktails, and encounters with quirky locals.
It is indeed revealed (though not until after a gratuitous couple minutes of topless Bomer arising and enjoying a steamy shower) that Neal and Mozzie have fled to the extradition-free archipelago of Cape Verde, near Western Africa. Only now, Neal goes by James Maine (after the USS Maine). Otherwise, not much has changed: He misses New York, clearly still finds time to work out, spends mornings forging priceless art and befriending neighborhood children, and, naturally, courting their island’s loveliest creature, sultry café owner Maya (Savages’ Mia Maestro).
By episode’s end, Collins has zeroed in on Neal and Mozz, and Peter’s arrived in Verde to get his boys home. A dozen subsequent episodes could have focused on the race to find and secure our fugitive cons, with Peter and Collins acting out their little tango while Neal and Mozzie stay one step ahead. But it’s good that didn’t happen. In the past, White Collar’s tended to drag out manhunts to incredulous lengths, hampering its momentum. In “Wanted,” we establish lines between good guys and troublemakers, create stokes among new foes, and reinforce the bonds between unlikely partners. All that, and a solid cliffhanger, international scooter chase, and relatively digestible history lesson on Portuguese colonialism to boot.
Phifer’s presence is a bit jarring. He plays Collins with an almost robotic sense of purpose, yet we don’t really know anything about him or how this lawman developed his mean streak. We’ll presumably soon discover what pushes his buttons, much as we did with Kramer over the past year. Also notable was Neal’s hesitant embrace (literally and otherwise) of Peter’s dramatic reappearance. He’s in quite a conundrum. As he says to Mozzie after getting word of Collins’ intentions, “I really thought I was done running this time.” And there’s no questioning his sentiments toward Peter. Still, whatever Neal Caffrey does, wherever he goes, he prefers to do so on his terms, and Peter’s heroic arrival no doubt feels like an anklet around his throat (a necklet?).
It’s nice to have White Collar back, even when Neal’s building sandcastle models of Manhattan to woo exotic women and when Peter’s man-crush on his friend continuously puts his family and career in jeopardy. There’s nothing but potential moving forward after “Wanted,” so here’s to hoping those responsible make the most of it.
- Nice smarmy turn by Hung’s Gregg Henry as crooked island overlord Henry Dobbs. It was like he personifies the fat cat on the cover of Warrant’s Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich.
- Ah, so building tiny ships inside bigger bottles is like a metaphor for low-level tyranny. I see.
- Neal speaks “conversational Swahili.” As opposed to what? Confrontational Swahili?
- It’s not very eco-friendly of Neal to throw his phone in the ocean.
- Mozz officiated his “associate” Lorenzo’s daughter’s wedding. To paraphrase Rick Moranis and Bill Pullman, “What does that make them?”