Sunday, June 28, 2009

Why "Burn Notice" is the right show right now

"Burn Notice" is among the top cable shows. For part of its second season, its ratings beat "The Closer," the most-watched cable program; the finale drew 6.1 million viewers. It's also very popular with critics, who praise it for inventive plots, terrific acting, and great action.

I think it's smart, sexy, and fun. The premise is easily described: a spy is wrongly accused of betraying the USA, his assets are seized and he's confined to his hometown, Miami. Action ensues as he helps people in order to raise money and contacts to clear his name.

Yet "Burn Notice" borrows a bit from prior successful shows. A distinct "Mission: Impossible" (or maybe "The A Team") vibe shines through as a team of trained operatives work together, fooling bad guys every week. It also takes strongly from "MacGyver" - since both have protagonists who brilliantly improvise to solve problems, the comparison was probably expected.

The frequent monologues of Michael Westin, like those in "MacGyver," usually advise viewers on how to close range with an opponent, make tear gas, or stage an ambush. Finally, in what may be a nod to "The Fugitive" or "Branded," it uses the old story convention of a falsely-accused man who must avoid both the law and criminals.

The amazing success of "Burn Notice" may lie in what it doesn't borrow. For one thing, the show's plot moves forward - avoiding the repetition and predictability that disarm action shows. Michael's steady progress in his efforts yield unexpected results.

For another, it deals with the array of crime that might occur in a city like Miami. The enemies are often thieves, kidnappers, or street gangs. This means viewers get a hero dealing with problems that might befall any of us urban folk. One week, he may face a trained assassin, but the next might involve a con man.

This approach not only provides an almost limitless supply of adversaries, it avoids the problem that sunk "MacGyver" : being overwhelmed by purely topical issues. Many "MacGyver" fans feel it "jumped the shark" once it turned away from the international intrigue so prevalent at the start.

Once a bold spy operating globally, the hero slowly became a Los Angeles-based social do-gooder. In two seasons, the lead went from guarding Soviet defectors to mostly helping inner city teens. It may be commendable to help a group of graffiti artists facing wrongful eviction, but it's less exciting than smuggling microfilm through Germany. Similarly, "M:I" was a show often featuring Eastern Bloc antagonists - yet in its final seasons, the show focused mainly on mob activities in the U.S. Topicality can be a weakness, once the topic fades or is over-used.

Or perhaps the tone is its strong suit. Michael Westin is a motivated, inventive spy who can pretend to be anyone. He also has very complex relationships - his nearest and dearest get the same trust and openness as an arms dealer.

Bruised, he wakes up to his new situation, and sees his steamy ex, Fiona - an Irish explosives expert he walked out on. She holds a grudge against him for leaving her, and she's in Florida to confront him and laugh at his discomfort (and, maybe, hook up). She seems to like helping him as much as watching him squirm.

Worst still, Michael must face his widowed mother. Joining the army at a young age, this hero escaped his abusive father by abandoning his family. He only sees her again because he has no choice. Perhaps Westin's worst nightmare is banishment from serving his country - but obviously the runner-up is being back home, forced to interact with his manipulative, bitter family. He must now depend on two angry females - and his friend, Sam, a retired Navy Seal who lives off of rich women.

A troubled personal life is only part of this 21st Century protagonist - this man isn't much of an idealist. He does under-charge victimized clients. But, if the stakes are less morally-compelling - when they don't involve kids, friends, or old ladies - he has no problem telling people that he can't help them. At times, he must be pushed into aiding someone.

This hardened ex-spy is most concerned with his own problems: finding his accusers and returning to his former life. His ability to focus means he can easily shut people out, and set aside anything outside his goals.

Jeffrey Donovan is a compelling lead - he's good-looking, has the martial arts skill to sell the action, and is versatile in his deceptions. His many guises as a drunk guard, intimidating thug, or sniveling nerd are believable.

Gabrielle Anwar is beautiful, vivid, and wonderfully real as Fiona. She breathes life into a flawed character - hot-headed, passionate, petulant - who makes a perfect foil to the almost pathologically cool Westin.

Sam is played by cult movie icon Bruce Campbell. He is the ultimate blue-collar buddy - a bored lush who flourishes under adversity.

Mama Westin is played by Tyne Daly, who may deserve an award for being the perfect passive-aggressive mother and ultimate chain-smoker; this show might kill her. The affection and in-fighting between all these characters seems genuine.

The only warning is this: I fear that the show has developed a sort of short-hand. So it's possible that the newest episodes work best for those who've seen what's come before. This means you might not enjoy the show too much unless you watch it from the beginning. Netflix the first season, at least.

That said, four weeks into season three, "Burn Notice" shows no sign of slowing down, repetition, or falling prey to its own hype. I hope it never does.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Chime in!