Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Burn Notice Double Dip

I don't cover TV here much because it's a little off-topic and I don't watch a lot of it. When I do, I try to draw special attention to something really good and fairly unknown. This is why I often go abroad - because I want something new and different and hopefully more mature and thoughtful than what American audiences tend to get.

So, yes - Intelligence, Hyperdrive, Sherlock, Survivors. I wanted my first post about TV, tho, to be a warm-up, so I went with then-favorite Burn Notice. I'll write a review to tell you why I think you should watch something; I'll write about strengths and weaknesses, but not plots. Why spoil the surprise?

Since "re-review" isn't a word, today's Double Dip covers something important to all story-telling: why I completely dropped a show that I once reviewed glowingly. If you look over my post, it might've seemed the producers were paying me for it (how I wish they had!). Years away have made my feelings easy to express.

Burn Notice really impressed me. From the start, it had a smart sense of humor which it used in many ways - dialogue, or little beats, character intros... It had good action and charismatic leads (Donovan, Anwar, Bruce Campbell!), and came off as Grosse Pointe Blank meets MacGyver.

Best of all, we see a master spy with his wings clipped, trying to clear his name. This basic story is so much better because he's also forced to see his mom and brother again, all while the bomb-making, gun-running, Irish girlfriend he skipped out on comes to town to both torment and seduce him. Seeing Fiona kick Michael's ass was such fun.

I stopped watching BN regularly after it returned for a third season; I'd stopped altogether by the fourth. It wasn't just from being busy - although that helped; I didn't care. So what changed?

There's this quality that a good tv series can have when it wins your interest: the episodes feel like chapters in a book - each installment is "of a piece," one big story unwinding. Burn Notice absolutely had that in its first and second seasons. & the appeal went away because the 30-whatever entries after S2 just felt like... like episodes in a tv show.

Many people call USA's tv shows "light." When they say this, they mean that the guy from Monk will make a joke while looking at a dead body and it will be funny. The dude from Psych will never get dumped and have a nervous breakdown. The lead from White Collar will never get depressed and fall into drug abuse.

From the start, Burn Notice set low social stakes - there was no zombie apocalypse or national catastrophe traced to him. Still, we start with him unjustly fired and then nearly killed. We see that even pleasant people are angry with him, and we soon learn that he abandoned his family for Army service because his dad was beating him. This intro sets up a rich and complex lead.

It was all so nifty! First, our lead needs to find an apartment, then he takes on extra work so that he can have the money to bankroll his effort to clear his name. These ideas are very smart and plausible at the start.

But the character is, after S3, written the same way he was at the start. Some eps raise the issue of whether he enjoys killing, like for fun - but it never credible to the role. Lines are over-written to increase the "drama" of it all, while also completely skipping everything the show set up that would feel organic and earned. Why does Mike need more cases? Or more money?

Villains were a bit dry, plots felt too familiar, and the big story - who framed this agent, why, and can he clear his name - was something that lost urgency. At the same time, the repetition became too much. I was tired of "male gaze" establishing shots of gorgeous women in bikinis (it's true), how virtually every single episode has a client to help, & seeing Sharon Gless smoke herself to death.

It just happens. I liked seeing our hero's fake identities. But if the writers have him doing the same 6 accents then... well, then by episode 35, there should be more context. Mike should reveal he has some Southern accent fetish, or he does it because he thinks it's incredibly funny. By the 3rd Indiana Jones, maybe you should reveal why Indy hates snakes(?).

Yet even the new elements weren't terribly engaging. The story tried to get "darker" by having our hero make some tough choices that cost two innocent people their jobs - but it sold these moments in a way that wasn't credible or organic. A new member of Michael's team is added to the cast - yet I'm in not interested in him or his plot lines.

Worst of all, new enemies and threats don't thrill me at all. The very introduction of them made me think, "they won't do anything with this until the last two eps." Season 2's Carla and Victor were excellent bad guys, who played perfectly off of the cast. That same year, the show created great minor opponents like Brennan and Larry. No such joy now.

Some shows can come back from stagnation or bad choices - plenty can't. I don't have tons of time, so once the spark is gone, I won't go back unless I hear something outstanding. None of it lessens the good ride provided in Seasons 1 and 2; if you're looking for action/comedy that's rather light but with a good core story, you should go to Netflix and stream it now (Hulu only runs new eps).

If I feel motivated to write more about TV, I'll probably review and recommend something brand new. Still, the second series of Sherlock will finally air in the States this month; I may be inspired again.

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