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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 Comforts of 'Burn Notice': How USA's Spy Drama Has Staved Off Stagnation While Keeping to What It Does Best

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.

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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