'White Collar' revs up for second season

Paley Center pays tribute to USA's hit TV crime drama

It was all fun and games Tuesday night with the "White Collar" gang as they revved up for the upcoming second season.

The series, which has been likened to "To Catch a Thief" and "Catch Me If You Can," centers on the daily dysfunction between a charming con man Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) and his elder "babysitter" of sorts FBI agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay), with the underlying question: Who can you really trust?

With a plane explosion closing out a successful freshman year that ended in early March, the finale moment wasn't the one that brought shockwaves. Instead, it was the midseason cliffhanger in December, with the reveal that it was good-cop Peter who was the wearer of the infamous ring that brought the biggest gasps.

"That one scared me a lot more than this one did, I gotta say," creator and executive producer Jeff Eastin said of the midseason shocker.

Willie Garson, who plays Neal's right-hand man Mozzie, discussed the complexities of the series' storylines, even comparing them to "Mission: Impossible" scripts. "I often have no idea what's going on, as you can see on the screen," Garson joked to a sold-out crowd at Paley Center.

Co-star Tiffani Thiessen (Elizabeth Burke), who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, offered a crazy theory that her character and Kate, Neal's long-lost love who he chases after the majority of Season 1, were either sisters or related. Besides the similarities in physical appearance, it's a theory that's been debunked -- for now, at least.

DeKay added that viewers are enamored with the mysterious music box, which will continue to play a big role when Season 2 begins in July, noting that "a music box is just quintessential 'White Collar,' " alluding to the symbolism the antique object shares with the series.

In discussing the finale, the moment between Peter and Neal prior to the explosion was a favorite. "It was one of those scenes that when you read it, you know it holds a lot of import and it needs to be given the credence and respect it deserves," Bomer said, adding that it was one of the last scenes that were shot during a blizzard. "I think we both inherently knew that."

DeKay agreed. "Acting teachers tell me how you should hold your trump card and this is one of those where Jeff held it 'til that scene," he said.

The dramatic scene between the two partners almost didn't happen. Originally, it asked for Peter to cuff Neal so as the two exited their embrace, viewers would hear the handcuff's click. It was at DeKay's request that Eastin revisit it, which ultimately produced the gut-wrenching confrontation that lives onscreen.

But last-minute script changes and rewrites aren't atypical on the "White Collar" set. "Willie will text me during a scene and say, 'You don't know how to write. This is crap. I'm fixing it now,' " Eastin teased, adding that that particular scene between Peter and Neal was rewritten the most.

The actors' experiences auditioning for their roles ran the gamut. "I read [the script] and really went after it hard," Garson said. Eastin chimed in, revealing that an actor who was going for the role of Mozzie walked out in the middle of his audition because he knew the producers would hire Garson. Sure enough, he was right.

Thiessen, most known for her stint on "Saved By the Bell," foreshadowed the series' success.

"I knew this show was going to be picked up," she said. But after learning that the producers were looking at younger actresses to play Peter's better half, it wasn't until she got the phone call that she was being called in for a chemistry read that her worry dissipated.

Like USA's motto, "Characters Welcome," "White Collar" fits the bill. If the crime aspect of the show were stripped away, the essence of the series would still remain: the characters' relationships. One of the healthier pairings remains its foundation.

"I like portraying a couple on TV that are doing well," DeKay said of Peter and Elizabeth's healthy marriage. "They really are each other's rock," Thiessen added.

According to Eastin, the couple's status was a calculated choice. It acted as a stark contrast to Neal and Kate's toxic bond, he explained.

Throughout the evening, the good rapport between cast members was felt, most noticeably when the topic of singing and dancing surfaced.

"What's the best point of waking up?," Garson asked Bomer, who makes it his daily mission to get a song stuck in everyone's heads. (Song of choice for the evening: "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler.) Bomer responded Garson's call by singing, "Folgers in your cup."

DeKay even shared a potential spinoff idea starring Sharif Atkins (Jones) that he and several cast members have been developing for a while, titled "White Collar Nights," most of which would take place in a claustrophobic FBI van. Audience members were lucky enough to get a sneak peek of the three-second falsetto theme song.

When Eastin first met with USA to pitch his "White Collar" concept, his visual aid included photos of Leonardo DiCaprio cuffed to Denis Leary, which represented the two leads. It must have worked because the following day, the cable net bought the pitch.

Interestingly, the New York locale was not the original setting for the show, which was San Diego, not exactly a hotbed for white collar crimes. To pen the script when it was decided New York was the place, Eastin used Google street view.

"It captures the beauty of New York City," Thiessen said, contrasting the show's stylized look to the grayness and grittiness of other New York cop dramas.

Eastin, who has engaged in playful Twitter wars with "Burn Notice's" Matt Nix, shared that Nix once told him he thought "Peter was my alter ego," which led to a light-bulb moment during the panel with Bomer's help. "Neal's probably my id," Eastin concluded.

With production on Season 2 beginning in a few days, not much is known about what's in store for Neal, Peter and the rest of the crew, but several familiar faces are set to return, including Alex, Kate and Peter's nemesis Fowler.

Eastin also shared with the audience that Jones will see more action in the first episodes back and viewers shouldn't be shocked if there is a duet with Neal and wealthy landlady June (Diahann Caroll) in the works.

For now, remember this: "['White Collar'] isn't dumbass television," Garson deadpanned at one point during the evening.

Amen to that.
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