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by Danny Bowes
August 24, 2012 12:54 PM
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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

The style of "Burn Notice" was born fully-formed in its pilot episode where, after Michael successfully manages to stop the bad guys from framing the good guy, he witnesses the bad guy's young son, who's been having difficulty with bullies -- in a parallel to his dad's trouble being framed by the rich guy -- stand up to those kids. Long after the standing up to the bully part has been established, we watch the boy, from the physical and emotional distance of a long shot, really beat the shit out of the former bully. It goes on for long enough as to both faintly chastise the audience for taking too much pleasure from violence and to establish that as funny and breezy as parts of the show can be, it's still going to get a bit dark.

This latest season, while appreciably more series than the first five -- containing a multi-episode arc where Fiona was in prison, after which Michael's ne'er-do-well brother Nate (Seth Peterson) was killed, culminating in a cliffhanger ending brought about by a surprising betrayal by a trusted colleague -- is still, nonetheless, the same "Burn Notice." It's managed, as a show, to be at once always exactly what it is, thus a reassuring constant for longtime viewers, and to evolve so that it never endured post-sell-by-date repetitious stagnation.

At the one point at which it seemed to be regressing to that state, the show managed to introduce a major new character without joining what Indiewire's own Matt Singer amusingly dubbed “The Poochie Legacy” (from the "Simpsons" episode when a new, hip character was introduced on "Itchy & Scratchy" to disastrous effect). In a lengthy narrative strand in which Michael was coerced into “burning” another agent, Jesse (Coby Bell) assumed what became a permanent place in the main cast, with Michael being thrust into the position of helping Jesse find the man who "burned" him, without revealing that he himself was the (unwilling) culprit. The added narrative conflict, as well as the parallel to Michael's own experience with having been burned, got the initial Jesse arc off to a strong start, and his integration within the principal cast ended up being remarkably smooth.

The show has pulled off the tricky and seemingly contradictory feat of evolving while also staying fundamentally the same. While the show is called "Burn Notice," and its first several seasons consist of Michael's attempts to discover who burned him and why, it has progressed to the point where Michael has both managed to get un-burned and discover the party responsible. Each additional revelation in Michael's investigation into who burned him has yielded another layer of mystery. With Michael being not only The Good Guy but a genuinely good guy devoted to stopping villains (evidenced by his continuing to take on outside cases even though he no longer needs to as his sole means of support), as long as there are people doing things they shouldn't within the intelligence community, there's no reason "Burn Notice" can't go on for as long as everyone involved still wants to do it.

There's also no reason for its audience to stop watching. "Burn Notice" deserves a great deal of credit for being what it is so perfectly. There is always a place for well-crafted character-based escapism on the big and small screens. What "Burn Notice" lacks in subtext and artistic ambition it more than compensates for with emotional warmth and the meticulous skill with which its diversions are assembled. It's not easy to make things look as easy as the "Burn Notice" team does on their show. There's something to be said, and there should be a place at the table for, a work as sublimely and artfully diverting as "Burn Notice." It's a show that defies superlatives, but is an achievement worthy of recognition.

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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.