A lot of attention has been paid to USA’s “blue sky” programming. But there’s another ideology present in their early 2010s shows, which I’ll call “good life through fine living” ideology. Suits and White Collar are maybe the best examples.
The male protagonists of these shows are charismatic, handsome, and sophisticated. They dress sharply (in suits natch) and can eye-ball identify designer ties. They have a “timeless” sense of fashion and aesthetic taste. Fine clothing but also food, wine, espresso, runway models, high-rise Manhattan apartments with sheet-glass walls and views of the city.
The show makes this taste appear “objective” in two ways. One, it is legitimized by the shows’ women. White Collar’s art counterfeiter Neil Caffree is paired off against his FBI handler, Peter Burke—the former flamboyant and high-class, the latter modest and middle-class, a bureaucrat to the core. Neil enjoys the finer things of life; he drinks cappuccinos on UWS rooftops, forges art like an old master, and could out-somelier a pro. And each time he makes an aesthetic or taste-based judgment call, Peter Burke is there, skeptical and American and vaguely working class. Who breaks the tie? Burke’s wife Elizabeth, who consistently sides with Neil. (Or else the gorgeous young art curators, jewelers, and rare book collectors Caffrey flirts with.)
The second tactic for legitimation comes from the protagonists’ smarts. Both Neil and Suits Michael Ross are off-the-charts geniuses (to the point of caricature). Ross gets perfect scores on the BAR without going to law school; he has a photographic memory, can speed-read 12,000pg legal tomes in an evening, and outsmarts every Ivy-educated lawyer he crosses paths with. Caffree schools the FBI agents with his lightning-fast mental math; he can recognize a microfiber from a new, unreleased EU $100 bill at fifteen feet; and he’s both artistic and strategic prodigy bar none. Did I mention both these characters are handsome and charismatic, able to pull tail at levels only paralleled by a certain MI6 agent? And indeed Bond is one of the clearest models here: suave, with the correct opinions about cocktails, his coiffed hair never ruffled by high speed chases. Sherlock Holmes completes the picture, with his fantasy of perfect inference. It’s a teenage wet dream that hits every target demo: the nerd, the ladies man, the wannabe artist all wrapped in one.
This isn’t actually what interests me in White Collar. What interests me is that most media representations of con-men look like House of Games or Oceans 11. There’s a con, and then there’s a reveal. Game over. In White Collar, it’s unclear—to Neil included—what his actual aims are, and whether he is conning Peter. His best play is intrinsic empowerment, aka becoming Peter’s friend, becoming likeable. And so he dives into this, and it’s impossible to tell, at least for much of the first season, whether he actually likes Peter or not. In some sense, whether he likes Peter is irrelevant. Liking Peter may mean that he goes to lengths to prevent Peter taking the hit, or getting to hurt, in whatever con Neil pulls for his freedom.
So you have a friendship forming, a working romance, but each party has its own motivations and suspicions towards the other. The show consists of a series of trust falls, of suspicions advanced and then contradicted, each party revealing itself to be trustworthy. And what you also see is what it costs, staying on someone’s good side, becoming their friend. The sacrifices Neil makes, the bullets he takes. Instead of taking opportunities for credit, on jobs well done, he redirects the credit Peter’s way. When Peter has marriage trouble, Neil bends over backward to help—lending out his rooftop, giving him anniversary ideas, helping troubleshoot and brainstorm. There are favors Neil could ask which he doesn’t, because the short-term gain of asking the favor undermines the long-term project of not making Peter feel the relationship is instrumental, that he’s being used. “I don’t want her to think I want anything from her,” Emma Stone’s handmaid character says of her Queen, in The Favourite.
And like all good serial television, side missions swerve weekly play in a new direction, while always somehow looping back to, and contributing to the main mission, which for Neil is freedom + a chance to see Kate, his girlfriend who appears to have fled the country, perhaps not of her own will. Like a Rockstar game, new crises emerge, NPCs beg for your help, dangling a carrot of reward so you give a shit. Goals that are instrumental towards one greater goal become fungible, convert out to point scoring.