Tiresome Sin, Exciting Virtue
'White Collar' and an Ideal to Aspire To
By: Kim Moreland|Published: April 27, 2011 4:00 PM
The January 24, 2011, issue of TV Guide had a short article about USA's hit series White Collar that caught my attention.
White Collar’s storyline is simple: FBI agent catches con-man. Con-man serves time, but then agent secures con-man’s early-release to him help catch other criminals. It is a story of good triumphing over evil.
The show is satisfying on a number of levels. Not only is it creative and full of surprising twists, but it also acknowledges that sin is destructive, that there is hope for redemption from sin, and that there are people who possess virtue and are willing to mentor the unredeemed.
White Collar’s two leads are FBI Agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay), and con-man Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer). Burke’s character has integrity and exhibits courage and honor. Caffrey’s character is deceitful and conniving but attractively urbane. Swirling around the two men are a host of other characters, both good and bad, who are colorful in their own right.
There is a moment in one episode, “Countermeasures,” which subtly sums up the tension between good and evil for this show: Caffrey the con-man is trying to protect his friend and landlord, June, from her late husband’s buddy, another con-man, “Ford.” In a sting to catch Ford and another dangerous criminal, Burke tells Caffrey, "You can either be a con or a man; you can't be both."
Throughout the series, there are many such “teaching moments” for Agent Burke because Caffrey still yearns for his old crime-ridden lifestyle.
Television Is ‘Holding a Mirror Up To Nature’
In fact, I'm a bit worried that the White Collar’s storyline might degenerate into another paean to original sin. I don’t think my fear is unreasonable.
Bomer’s idea is tiresomely unoriginal. Once we push back that thin veil of sophistication and charm, the absurdity of his position becomes evident. Let’s examine the pain and suffering caused by vice shown in White Collar: prison, betrayal, death.
Sin is attractive to us because we enjoy committing it. But at the same time, sin is parasitical in nature. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes, “Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness.” On many television series, the anti-hero is portrayed as the hero. But anti-heroism is an outright disloyalty to God. Whether it is Bomer panting for his character to “sow wild oats,” or any other person panting to portray vice as good, sin isn’t a creative force—it is inherently chaotic and unoriginal.
In a letter to his son Christopher Tolkien, on 14 May 1944, J.R.R. Tolkien expressed my weariness with wickedness brilliantly: “A small knowledge of history depresses one with the sense of the everlasting mass and weight of human iniquity: old, old, dreary, endless repetitive unchanging incurable wickedness.”
Stories of Moral Triumph
What would have been original and exciting is if Bomer turned his statement on its head and recognized the importance making virtue triumphant. Moral triumph works because we, ultimately, yearn to be chaos-free.
Bomer is, of course, only one person connected to the show. Creator Jeff Eastin seems to see it differently. He says, “What [Neal] really wants in his heart is that white picket fence—Peter’s life—but life has thrown him some curves.” Laudably, Eastin, along with actor Tim DeKay, make Peter’s virtue compelling.
For a really interesting show, then, the laws of the created characters must reflect the laws in which God has created us. As Peter tells Neal when explaining the difference between justice and revenge, justice is “restoring order, not furthering chaos.” As Neal sees Peter living out this truth, we see him begin to yearn for a taste of that order in his own life.
Agent Burke’s virtue and Caffrey’s walk toward redemption point to a “great moral triumph.” And this is what constitutes excitement. In “Is Goodness Boring?” Ron Julian, a teacher at Gutenberg College, decidedly says no. He asserts that, in many stories, the virtue is the drama. “Goodness need not be boring at all; its portrayal satisfies a universal human hunger.”
To me, Peter’s character is the most interesting one on White Collar, and he represents the idea that goodness, or moral triumph, is an ideal to which we should aspire. That’s an idea that’s been missing from many a television series.
Imitation of Life
Why does all this matter? Because Americans spend a goodly number of hours watching television, and it shapes the way we think. As professor Donald Drew teaches, “The visual is more potent than the verbal. . . . Unlike the verbal, [the visual] touches beneath the conscious level to the subconscious and en route affects the emotions and the will.”
Television series and the minds behind them are important to all of us because shows (and movies, too) act as de facto moral guides—sadly, more so than pastors and teachers. Whether they’re meant to or not, they explore and communicate life’s meaning. So as a primary source of information, it would behoove us to applaud shows that portray the attractiveness of virtue and the beauty of goodness. Stories of moral triumph confronting moral turpitude, like theft, murder, betrayal can help viewers glean important lessons in character.
Television is an art form, and Drew writes, “Art imitates life. Today, art forms not only reflect and promote thought-forms and lifestyles, but Byron-like, tend to become life itself.”
As viewers get ready to watch the upcoming seasons of White Collar, which starts again on June 7, my hope is that the story will continue to show the triumph of goodness and the chaos of evil.
 What might help you comprehend the parasitical nature of sin is thinking about a car. We can agree that a car is good, but when it becomes rusted, the rust detracts from the value of the car. On its own, then we can say that rust is a destroyer, not a creative good.
 On House, Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) is the ultimate anti-hero. House lies, cheats, and steals, and his actions infect those around him. As the series draws toward the end of its seventh season, House’s actions are becoming increasingly evil, showing that wickedness destroys.
 Another heroic character on television is NCIS’s Gibbs (Mark Harmon). While Gibbs is flawed, he follows rules which honor family, friends, and country—good over evil. And along with showing a positive view of the family, the series, Blue Bloods, starring Tom Selleck as Frank Reagan, focuses on moral triumph.
(Homepage image copyright USA Network.)
Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.