Talk about using pain as your muse.
Though there are certainly echoes of movies like "Catch Me If You Can," "48 Hours" and, especially, "Lethal Weapon" all over USA's new hit, "White Collar," one of the series' most distinctive elements wasn't brought on by a writer's love of a good caper. Rather, it was sparked by creator Jeff Eastin's divorce.
At the time he was penning his pilot about FBI Agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) and convicted con artist Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) who become an unlikely crime-fighting duo, Eastin and his wife had separated. In the traumatic wake of his personal life, Eastin soon felt that resident dreamboat Caffrey was a little too perfect. So, in a move that transformed the cunning criminal into a romantic hero, Eastin decided that Caffrey's girlfriend would leave him just months before his prison sentence was set to expire.
"My wife literally had disappeared and that really became the Kate mythology for the series," Eastin said. "It was something I was going through and it's nice when you have someone that can pay for your therapy."
"White Collar" is USA's latest character-based series to become a hit and to help boost the network into basic cable's top ranks. The network has been on fire with its series, such as crime thriller "Burn Notice" and this summer's young-doctor-to-the-rich-and-famous drama "Royal Pains."
"White Collar," which airs at 10 p.m. Fridays, launched last month with an impressive 5.4 million total viewers and has averaged 5.3 million viewers in its three-episode run. (That includes viewers in the first week who recorded it and watched later. DVR data for the other episodes are not available yet.)
In the pilot, Neal's heartbreak is pivotal in establishing the odd couple/cop buddy conceit of the show. When Neal discovers his girlfriend has abandoned him, he can't ride out the final four months of his sentence and breaks out of prison only to be apprehended -- again -- by Burke. Rather than let talent waste away in jail, Burke negotiates a work-release deal in which Neal helps solve capers in exchange for limited freedom.
"The relationship that Peter and Neal have is quite complicated," said DeKay, whose character is happily married. "It's not just a buttoned-up cop who gets a little frustrated with the cool ex-con artist. It's more that they do like each other, but there is a trust issue. I don't know if Peter trusts Neal's romantic impulses. He trusts him but he's afraid that his heart is going to make him do something he's going to regret."
In the series, Neal, who has a distinct Rat Pack sense of style and fashion -- and even rents a room in a mansion from a rich widow played by Diahann Carroll -- has tracked his long-lost Kate to San Diego, but has yet to find her. The search will drive his character, particularly in this first season.
"It's what motivates him to comply with the FBI in the first place," Bomer said. "His compliance with the FBI is ultimately how to get closer to her. I think there's a part of Neal that envies and is fascinated by the white-picket existence that Peter seems to have with his wife. He doesn't really understand it but he's fascinated by it."
The Manhattan locations certainly are not regularly featured on other cop shows either. Peter and Neal arrest their suspects in picturesque locales such as Columbus Circle, Times Square, the Financial District, Central Park and Rockefeller Center, which adds to the show's romantic, somewhat nostalgic quality. But as Bomer can attest, New York is still New York.
"We're shooting in all the places that when I lived in New York, I'd look at in wonderment," Bomer said. "But the best thing about New Yorkers is that they keep you grounded. There's always some indignant New Yorker walking by right when they're ready to call action saying, "Excuse me, this is my apartment building. I don't care what you're shooting here.' "
Neal's budding bromance with Peter has been singled out by critics as the top draw of the series. It's a chemistry that has existed since their first screen test together, and the two actors say it's only deepening.
"Within seconds of our reading together, I knew this could be a blast," DeKay said. "I do think the show lives in that space between Peter and Neal and that energy that's between us was prevalent during the audition. It's interesting because when I read this script, I didn't even think of it as a cop show. Yeah, I realize Peter has a badge, but I looked at it as a relationship show."
Eastin said the buddy cop genre is in "my blood" and that he specifically borrowed from "Lethal Weapon," which has two disparate men become true partners. "I think Neal is a little more childish in that he questions the rules. Peter is more the straight deductive guy," Eastin said. "These are two guys who are always the smartest guys in the room."