Reviews: Burn Notice

Bizarre Name, Gem of a Show

I didn't know this two years ago, but a "burn notice" is a spy pinkslip indicating you are no longer trustworthy. But instead loosing a steady paycheck they cut you off from all resources, they "burn" you. Oh, the things you learn from television.

And that is the premise of this show, Michael Westen is a burned spy with no idea why. He is smart enough to think in the first episode that it might be some Government Conspiracy that wants him for a job below even regular spy work. And that mostly proves to be true. Without any sort of employer recommendation and being on the FBI "people to watch" list, he doesn't have much to go on. The only way to make ends meet is to work side-projects with a few friends helping out those in need.

It seems to be a standard We Help The Helpless type plot, and it is. But what sells the show lies entirely in the execution and characters. Michael is Dangerously Genre Savvy and Jeffery Donovan performs him as an enigma with a serious yet playful personality. Bruce Campbell is... well, Bruce Campbell. Sam is right up his alley, suave yet obnoxious (in a good way). Gabrielle Anwar is Fiona, who has some problems because of the writing. Fiona is tough but also falls into the trap of being the "prissy female" of the group. It's a difficult character to balance out, but being so aggressive does avoid the pitfall of being The Load. Sharon Gless is Madeline, but her role is just someone for Michael to worry about.

The show aims to subvert as much of the complicated spy drama as much as possible. What convinced me to keep watching the show comes from a well known line from the pilot "Guns make you dumb. I'd much rather fight my wars with duct tape. Duct tape makes you smart." They aim to make the plans simple but hinge on the skills that Michael employs, so Dont Try This At Home. Like the best of the action genre these are characters that spend time trying to think their way through a situation, very rarely does it come down to a fist fight.

Part of the fun is seeing just how badly Michael and co. outclass their current foe. But when you want him to have a challenge, there is always a rare competant Villain Of The Week and the Myth Arc involving the organization that burned him. But even on an episodic basis it keeps you entertained. You can't ask for much more than that.

Season 1 and 2; Enjoyable fluff

Burn Notice is one of my favorite TV shows and coming from someone that finds most television pandering and shallow, it's quite a high compliment.

The best part of the show is its dedication to realism. While it no doubt stretches some details a bit in favor of the narrative, it has a genuine verisimilitude that most secret agent series lack. Much of this is reflected with the narration, pointing out many of the misconceptions the general public have about intelligence work and action in general. Some parts still seem dubious given much thought, but it's at least making a genuine effort towards realism.

In a sense, the show could be considered a spiritual successor of MacGyver. Michael Westin uses much of the same inductive reasoning and improvisational ability as the Richard Dean Anderson character. The key difference here is that Michael isn't a total boy scout and the show doesn't try to do any blatant social soapboxing. There are themes of morality and some episodes do portray the characters in a genuinely heroic light, but it's not afraid to paint them in shades of grey.

The characters have quite a bit more depth to them than one really expects. It could have been really easy for them to fall into stock archetypes, but quite a bit of thought was put into their personality and mannerisms with some real departure from expectation. These aren't people you've seen in any other genre work and they all work pretty well together.

My real point of contention is probably in the fact that it settles into formula from the start. Each episode outside of the season 2 finale centers around some private detective work at the bequest of a troubled victim. Con men, gangs, smuggling outfits, the works. Michael and friends infiltrate the criminal circle and undermine them from within. It starts to get a little tedious after a while and one finds themselves apathetic to their work, wanting them to just interact with each other instead of the criminals of the week. The main plot inches along at a glacial pace, but that's probably as much a compliment as it is a detriment. Certainly no unrealistic tempest of events within a notoriously slow field.

So, the big question: is this a show one would like? It's not a show for everybody, but then again, what good show really is? Take a gander and decide for yourself.

Ruin good shows in a single bound: It's Super Jesse.

Burn Notice hooked me instantly. It's exactly what a modern TV series is expected to be: movie-style camera work, snappy post-Whedon dialog, and season-spanning story arcs. None of that Macgyver fluff where the hero never takes a life or faces any consequences. Season 3 is criticized as the weakest. I admit they didn't do enough with the "back on the grid" angle. Michael should have been attacked on all sides, forcing him to crawl on his hands and knees back to Management. Instead, he walked back into their arms willingly. But the episodes were still good, and even the dubious casting of Moon Bloodgood was satisfying.

Then came season 4....and Jesse Porter. This glorified Special Guest Star's chrome head is enough to tank a scene all on its own. He's a sanctimonious, macho bore, precisely what this show didn't need. Next, the writing took a nosedive. The villains became dull and predictable, and Michael began cooperating with the people who burned him. Why? Because a creepy bald man assures him that they've mended their ways: they're "good" now. Works for me! Nevermind that Michael has watched first-hand as they fund terrorism and slaughter entire families. Victor? Who's that?

Burn Notice also has this infuriating tendency to kill off its best characters before we realy get to know them. Sometimes, they just step onto the screen, and a hail of bullets turns them into hamburger (Because it's still shocking the third time it happens). It's sad that the one episode in that I liked was the Prison Break ripoff. Jesse doesn't talk much in that one. A coincidence I'm sure.

The show runner blamed the clunky story arc on not knowing whether he'd be renewed. Now that he's got his 3-year pickup, maybe the series will improve. I hope it can recover from this, though with Jesse sticking around, I'm not exactly euphoric. He has no chemistry with Michael, and yet the series is trying to mold them into Back To Back Badasses. It's a logical fallacy.