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by Danny Bowes
August 24, 2012 12:54 PM
2 Comments
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The Comforts of 'Burn Notice': How USA's Spy Drama Has Staved Off Stagnation While Keeping to What It Does Best

Gabrielle Anwar, Bruce Campbell, Coby Bell, Chad Coleman and Jeffrey Donovan in 'Burn Notice' Glenn Watson/USA Network

To sing the praises of USA Network's "Burn Notice" (the sixth season summer finale of which aired last night) is to run the risk of seeming to damn the show with faint praise. It is not the first of channel's quirky hour-long comedy-dramas, nor the most critically acclaimed, though it is currently USA's highest-rated original show. What "Burn Notice" is is a consistent, slickly executed diversion that's just complex enough to be intriguing and just simple enough to follow as to not be a chore.

Its endless-summer Miami setting is one with its laid-back tone and pacing, though as regularly happens in those climes, hurricane-like violence blows through, dark, inevitable and fierce. Of course, part of the show's charm is that it avoids such ponderous analogies -- "Burn Notice" does not tease with promises of great portent or social significance. It is exactly what it is, which is why, despite all of the holes one can poke in it, it's really quite wonderful, and built to last better than any show currently on television.

The show begins with spy Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) receiving the news, at an extremely inconvenient time, that he's been the subject of a “burn notice,” a document circulated to intelligence agencies to announce the unreliability of a given spy. Michael, not having done anything, is at a loss as to who was responsible for “burning” him and why. He's confined -- with no credit cards and his bank accounts frozen -- to his hometown of Miami, where he encounters old friends like his ex-IRA ex-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and ex-FBI handler Sam (the immortal Bruce Campbell), who initially is spying on Michael for his old workplace, which Michael realizes in short enough order to not end up being compromised.

Also in the mix is Michael's chain-smoking hypochondriac mother (Sharon Gless), with whom his relationship is even more complex. These four make for an engaging principal cast (joined by a fifth starting season four, more on whom later), with just the right balance between conflict and inseparability, one paralleled in the show's narrative structure, between the ongoing mystery of who burned Michael and the self-contained stories within almost every episode detailing how Michael initially supports himself, taking on private detective work that makes use of his espionage skills.

While the story itself, with all its tradecraft and subtropical corruption, is perfectly fine, the secret to the success of "Burn Notice" is its execution. The acting is uniformly fine if nothing extraordinary (though Bruce Campbell's je ne sais quoi knows no bounds) and is abetted by sharp writing. Creator Matt Nix and the writing staff have done a splendid job creating characters who can withstand several seasons of development while still remaining compelling. The audience's identification with Michael as a protagonist is amplified by his first-person narration, which serves both the practical end of providing exposition where necessary to speed along the plot, and also the aesthetic one of flattering the audience by letting them in on the thought processes of a spy who, while reasonably self-effacing and pragmatic about it, is still the classic “best of the best of the best” type upon which escapist genre fiction relies.

What makes it work so well is that Michael's "when you're a spy" asides are almost exclusively characterized by the perspective they take on mundane details -- they make the audience say “Huh....hadn't thought of it that way. Cool.” This tendency carries over into Michael's ingenious gadget-making, which has led to more than a few comparisons with the cult classic "MacGyver." "Burn Notice" gets the edge for, while still regularly bordering on asking the audience to believe a man can make a cell phone out of a cereal box, doing a slightly better job in that convincing.

One key reason why is the show's cinematic style. The bright, sun-drenched color palette trades on the audience's familiarity with other south Florida-set shows. "Burn Notice" borrows the usual tics from recent thriller and action genres -- a judicious, self-consciously hip use of variable shutter speeds, freeze frames and title cards. While mostly empty calorie flash, these things do announce to the audience what kind of show it is, and also make for moments of legitimate brilliance.

2 Comments

  • NB | August 27, 2012 10:19 AMReply

    "Burn Notice" is also great because all of the women--including Madeline in an episode last season--know how to lock, load and kick as much ass as the men.

    Everyone gets to have fun.

  • Jacqueline Lichtenberg | August 24, 2012 1:29 PMReply

    I traded comments on a Facebook thread about this season's turn of events on BURN NOTICE. These comments were among a group composed mostly of professional novel writers and their fans. We were all disappointed by this season's poor script quality and the deus ex machina effect. "Surprise Twists" are not random "oh, that would be neat" ideas just tossed into a plot. To be a real Twist, a "surprise" must have been "set up" deliberately earlier.