Thursday, May 22, 2008

Burn Notice: Review

The show is about Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), an American spy who doesn’t work for any one agency. At the beginning of the first episode, in the middle of an under-the-table payoff to a local Nigerian terrorist group, Michael learns that he has been “Burned”; which is the spy equivalent of being fired. Unfortunately, this comes up in the middle of a deal, and trouble ensues. To make a long story short, Michael ends up passed out in his hometown of Miami. [Previews Here and Here and Here]

To be “Burned” means that a spy is completely cut off from everything and everybody; no agency will talk to him, his financial resources are nonexistent, and his name is red-flagged (which prevents him from traveling.)

Naturally, the first thing Michael wants to do is to figure out why he was ‘burned’ in the first place. This is hard to do, since Michael has next to no resources at his disposal. Also, he quickly learns that he is under surveillance.

What he does have is a bitter gun-nut ex-girlfriend Fiona (whose accent disappears after episode 1, which was explained away with a single line); a retired spy buddy named Sam (played by the always entertaining Bruce Campbell); a small group of illicit contacts; and a nagging, chain-smoking, hypochondriac mother. It is through his mother that he gets his first ‘job.’

To support himself, Michael becomes an unofficial private-investigator and problem solver. What’s fun abut this show is how Michael solves these problems (with the help of his two sidekicks, Sam and Fiona.) As Michael says (who also does the voice-over), “Guns make you stupid. Better to fight your wars with duct tape. Duck tape makes you smart", not that he doesn’t use guns when appropriate, he just prefers more creative solutions (think MacGyver.)

Weather its running out a local drug lord, saving a kidnapped family, uncovering a minor conspiracy, helping a kid deal with bullies, or making a bomb; Michael has a clever solution to everything (get a small taste of that here.) Michael employs psychological manipulation (“People are more likely to believe a piece of information if they have to work a little bit for it”), technical skills, fast-thinking, and good-old-fashion combat.

So, each episode there are two or more stories going on, Michael trying to find out why he was ‘burned’ (each episode the mystery deepens, he soon discovers it is about much more then just him), and a new ‘case’ for Michael to solve.

But I am not even mentioning the relationship between the characters; Fiona and Michael have a tense romance brewing, which works quite well, Sam is always enjoyable (as well as his relationship with Fiona), and the relationship between Michael and his mother is hilarious (a spy who can deal with third-world dictators, but has a hard time dealing with his own mother.) The chemistry in this show is great.

Michael’s narrative of the show also works well; he doesn’t explain the story as much as fills in some “spy-factoids”; such as “in the field, communicating silently is a must”, or "A good trap doesn't scare people, it makes them curious.” More then anything, Michael’s narrative helps pull the various elements of the show together.

There are some annoying aspects of this show; sometimes clunky dialogue, stylistic choices that felt thrown in (rap-music to shots of Miami), and I didn’t think the relationship between Michael and his loser brother worked very well.

Still, what makes this show fun is the sexy and lovable characters, the mystery, the action, and the comedy, and how the show pulls all of this together for a very enjoyable experience. But especially, it’s fun to see highly competent, and mostly moral characters fight a variety of bad guys.

While I don’t think ‘burn notice’ will win any Emmy’s, it’s a great summer show; which I am glad was picked up for a second season, if only to figure out what happens after the cliffhanger at the end of the first.

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