By Ken Tucker
Updated July 13, 2010 at 12:00 PM EDT

White Collar returned for a second season on Tuesday night with the premiere of Covert Affairs following it. Both shows are better than they have any reason to be, and one reason is Tim Matheson. He directed both of these episodes, and put in a fine appearance as a rich smuggie on White Collar.

Indeed, Collar has become one of the better “characters welcome” shows on USA, mostly because of the contrast between stars Matt Bomer (playing a smooth criminal without smugness) and Tim DeKay (playing an FBI agent who’s neither a hard-boiled jerk nor clumsy comic relief). This week’s premiere had a bank-robber plot (the mystery: who is “The Architect”?) and a somewhat big reveal about the show’s MacGuffin, the music box, which I’ll let you all discuss in the Comments section below.

What White Collar did best, though, was to reestablish the easygoing rhythms and longish, thoughtful-ish colloquies between Bomer’s Neal Caffrey and DeKay’s Peter Burke. Director Matheson filmed these chats with a crispness that made the characters pop.

Covert Affairs was a very different affair. You had to buy into the idea of Piper Perabo as a CIA trainee who’s plucked from the low ranks on the strength of her brains, her beauty, and, well, her strength. You had to suppress memories of Jennifer Garner and Alias as Perabo’s Annie Walker obeyed orders to dress like a “call girl” and fight like a Krav Maga expert.

Watching Covert Affairs in real time (I’d already viewed a review copy for a “What To Watch” review in the latest issue of EW), the fight scenes seemed better — more swift, visually clever — than I’d thought during a first look. Credit will go to producer Doug Liman because he’s a big-time feature-film action director (Mr. and Mrs. Smith; The Bourne Identity), but I’ll extend it, again, to Tim Matheson, for keeping those action scenes in a context that, if not quite believable, then certainly a fantasy that suited the quieter moments with Annie Walker. If you still just think of Matheson as Otter from Animal House, or Veep John Hoynes on The West Wing, you’ve got to get caught up on his resume. I don’t know what his arrangement with USA is, but he’s also directed snappy episodes of Burn Notice, and many other, non-USA network shows.

I’m not sure whether I’m going to watch Covert Affairs very often — the quality of next week’s episode may decide that for me — but I know that, on a summer night, if there’s a new episode of White Collar on, I’ll probably watch it, with completely guilt-free pleasure.

How about you: Fan of White Collar? What did you think of the premiere and its ending?

Impressed by Covert Affairs, or not?

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