In the summer of 2007, USA Networks put out a small, summer replacement show called Burn Notice. The premise, on paper, doesn’t sound like anything special. Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) was a spy for an unknown agency. One day, in the middle of an operation, Michael finds out that he’s been “burned”–he’s no longer working for the government. He’s black bagged and wakes up to find that he’s now stuck in Miami permanently, with no job, no credit, no history, nothing. While in Miami, he is reunited with his ex-flame, Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and an old buddy from his intelligence days, Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell). Michael spends most of his days trying to find out who burned him so he can go back to his old life. In the meantime, he does odd jobs for people who are in trouble with the criminal underground in Miami.
Reading that summary back, I’m struck with how basic and mundane that the premise of the show must seem on paper. It sounds like the kind of show that runs for six seasons on CBS on Friday nights and never, ever gets watched by me. But Burn Notice had one feature that guaranteed that I would sit and watch the pilot: it co-starred Bruce Campbell. I’m a Campbell fan from way back, and I’ve seen every TV series he’s ever had cancelled. I love The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and the little seen but awesome Jack of All Trades. So you better believe I was there to watch. And I’m glad I was, because as it turns out, Burn Notice is the best show on TV today. Here’s why:
1. Story, Story, Story
TV is a peculiar medium, and as such, it has its own needs. Because it is ongoing without a set point of closure, the way in which a show structures itself becomes essential. Some episodes, particularly sitcoms and police procedurals, are episodic–the story beats are pretty much wrapped up in one episode, with few character arcs pulling through, but nothing major. Other shows, however, consist of long, complicated story arcs of the course of a season, such as Heroes and 24. Still others consist of multiple seasons telling the same overall story, which is great when done well, like in Babylon 5, but terrible when the meta-plot takes over the entire show and makes it tough to follow (I’m looking at you, Lost).
Burn Notice has what I think is the best of both worlds in television. Every episode tells a discrete story in and of itself, while there are threads that tie the overall narrative of the show together. Season One asked and answered the quesiton “Who Burned Michael?” Season Two asked and answered “Why was Michael burned?” Now Season Three appears to be asking the question “Can Michael become a spy again?” Each season we’ve gotten closer to the mystery, with just enough bits and pieces to add some excitement to the episodes without disrupting the main plot of each. It’s a terrific balance that it pulls off well. Well, with the exception of Season Three’s mini-arc of Michael’s antics becoming the focus of a police investigation. Don’t get me wrong–I thought the idea was good. But the actress they cast as the detective, Moon Bloodgood, has about as much personality as a ventriloquist’s dummy–minus the vantriloquist.
2. Characters With a Shared History
One of the nice touches, and something that makes Burn Notice unique, is the way the show focuses on Michael Westen’s relationship with the rest of the leads. The sexual tension between Michael and his ex-flame Fiona has a chemistry and realism that a lot of shows think they have and don’t. Michael and Sam have a shared history which is alluded to in war stories and by the way they talk about people they know. And, of course, Michael’s relationship with his mother, played brilliantly by Sharon Gless, is one of the highlights of the show. As played by Donovan, Michael Westen is a stoic on the outside and a man of deep feeling on the inside. The relationships between the characters highlights that. As an added bonus, the show only shares the past in hints and stories. Not once has there been a flashback on the show. And according to the show’s creator, Matt Nix, there never will be.
3. Handy Tips on Spying
First person narration in a television series is typically a curse, and the sign of bad writing. Not so with Burn Notice, which takes advantage of Westen’s store of knowledge to provide voice-over narrations on how to conduct a successful spy operation with limited resources such as those available at your local hardware store. In addition to showing off the MacGuyver-esque skills of Westen, they also introduce little insights about his character. Bon mots like my all time favorite “Guns make you stupid. Better to fight your wars with duct tape. Duct tape makes you smart.” show that Michael clearly prefers elegant, clever solutions to brute force ones–which is a theme that carries over into the show as a whole. (The most important tip I’ve learned, by the way, is that cell phones are the most useful gadgets on the planet.)
4. The Acting
Do they give Emmys to casting directors? If so, whoever casts Burn Notice deserves about a dozen. Jeffrey Donovan is brilliant as Michael Westen, not just in his ability to portray the character, but his ability to embody other roles as Michael during his cases. Gabrielle Anwar and Bruce Campbell have both pretty much nabbed the roles that their careers have been waiting for, and both have a fantastic chemistry with Donovan. But the real casting coup is Sharon Gless who is absolutely perfect in the role of Madeline Westen. She manages to be annoying and colorful, but still a smart, loving mother–albeit one who’s a tad on the dysfunctional side. She’s just brilliant and steals every scene she’s in. The guest stars are also almost always excellent, which is always a bonus in the type of show with lots of new characters every week.
5. A Million Little Things
In addition to the great, solid aspects of the show, there’s also a million and one little details about the show that are just fantastic. The show has a great sense of gallows humors and wit. It also has the best intro to new characters with its captions. I won’t describe them–you just need to watch the show. But also, in addition to the wit and humor, there is a definite sense of values that the show brings. Contra the trends of the last 30 years of spy literature, Michael Westen is not an amoral thug for whom the ends justify the means. He is an actual hero, who fights for the little guy and is always trying to do the right thing. (As Michael says, “As a spy, it doesn’t matter if you’re helping rebel forces fight off a dictator, or giving combat tips to a third-grader. There’s nothing like helping the little guy kick some bully’s ass.”) It’s the nature of his work that he has to engage in some unlawful things, but he always strives to minimize damage (if he steals your car, he’ll have it back by five and keep it clean), and works within the system whenever it’s at all possible. Hell, speaking of values, there’s a great episode devoted to interrogation where all of the spies involve instantly dismiss the usefulness of torture and concoct a much better way to do it–I hope Jack Bauer was taking notes.
It’s this combination of all these elements–the structure, the characters, the writing, the values, and wit–that make Burn Notice required television. The first two seasons are out on DVD, and USA is fond of running in-season marathons. So do your self a favor–get yourself caught up so you, too, can learn why guns make you stupid, and duct tape makes you smart.
A modified version of this article was originally published at the e-zine Heretical Ideas.