Television Spotlight: Burn Notice

USA aims for the lighter side of espionage in its newest spy television show Burn Notice. After watching a couple of episodes, I’d say it’s more or less on target.

The spy in this spy show is played by Jeffrey Donovan (who incidentally was not in Mumford). Donovan is Michael Westen – a US Government agent who is unceremoniously fired, beaten up, and discarded in Miami without so much as a pink slip or explanation from his former agency (I’m assuming this is the case. I missed the beginning of the first episode so I’m going with the commercials on this one). To make matters worse for Westen, his money’s gone, his history’s been erased and he’s stuck in the same city as his possessive mother and combative ex-girlfriend who also happens to be a spy. It’s now Westen’s job to figure out how things went wrong and then put them right again.

Jeffrey Donovan has a severe case of puppy dog eyes

Burn Notice has a difficult mission. It wants to be two parts James Bond to one part Remington Steele. It’s a fine line to be edgy, dangerous, and comedic and I have strong suspicions that Burn Notice will end up falling on the softer side of Remington Steele.

For one thing, leading man Jeffrey Donovan isn’t quite suave enough to be Bond (or even Steele, really) but he fits smoothly into the role of an everyday nice guy caught in a jam -who just happens to be an ex-spy. And in many respects, Donovan’s acting is a lot like his character’s personality; he wants to be a tough guy but deep down inside he’s all softie. Sure, he may help immigrants and little old ladies because he needs the money and information, but we know it’s really because he’s a decent guy who can’t ignore a genuine plea for help.

That’s not to say that Michael Westen is a wuss. Donovan is sleek and muscular enough to be a credible killing machine even if his puppy dog eyes (I may be a dude but I do notice these things) convey an inner good guy-ness. It’s only when Donovan tries to be cold and conflicted that he instead comes out sounding stiff and stilted.

It’s still early in the show’s career, but the simplistic plotlines also keep Burn Notice out of Bond territory. Westen quickly meets a wronged victim and sets out to help them in exchange for some cash or helpful intel. The bad guys are then identified within the first ten minutes and the remaining time in the hour long show is spent going through the espionage motions of bugging, shadowing, and general tomfoolery. This could get formulaic real fast except for the key additions of some excellent co-stars.

Gabrielle Anwar is the trigger-happy ex-girlfriend and she manages a solid performance despite an Irish (?) accent that makes her sound like a female version of Colin Farrell. By the second episode, some actual chemistry exists between her and Donovan and the makings of a relationship that isn’t quite “love-hate” begins to emerge.

The real scene-stealer, however, is good old Bruce Campbell. Brisco County Jr. has aged considerably since the last time I saw him, but he’s still got that same loveable charm and goofball wit. Campbell plays washed out ex-agent Sam who is Westen’s energetic foil and reluctant ally. Sam looks like he’ll be a frequent partner for Westen and bringing in Bruce Campbell already looks like the smartest move Burn Notice has made.

Visually, this is unmistakably a beach show. It doesn’t have the crazy colors of CSI:Miami (or David Caruso’s baby lips), but the washed blues and beiges remind me of Pacific Blue from back in the day. And perhaps I’m simply spoiled on high-definition television, but the film quality on Burn Notice seems grainer than most shows.

If a baby were aged 50 years and forced to pose relentlessly, then that baby's name would be David Caruso

Burn Notice is set to live and die by the performance of its relatively small cast. While the early episodes already show the beginnings of an Investigation-of-the-week formula, it’s up to the ex-spy and his friends to keep the action fast and light. With any luck, they’ll tighten some plots, throw in a few new characters and survive for a little while longer. Burn Notice is a spy show that’s more comedy than killer but it’s already captured my attention.


SQT said...

I missed the first episode of this, but I am going to check it out. I like Jeffrey Donovan. He was in a short lived TV show called Touching Evil. He played an FBI agent who was shot in the head and it left his without fear-- or pretty much any normal emotions. The show was interesting and sometimes uncomfortable, but I liked Donovan a lot.

Matt said...

Thanks for the link! I'm definitely going to check out Touching Evil.

Just one more reason to be thankful for Youtube.

Mike Spoodles said...

Hey! I like your blog.

I'm not sure if I'd recommend either the book or the movie. Neither brings anything particularly new to the table. The book confirms everything that pretty much everybody had already suspected about the big fast-food chains. The movie has powerful acting, but it's dampered by the fact that it comes off as an ad for PETA.

If you're looking to be enlightened on the subject, I guess I would recommend the book. If you're looking to be entertained, I'd recommend Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me instead.

Sadie said...

I didn't really love it, but I might give it another chance.

In the beginning of the ep, btw, he's about to close a deal, and he calls his boss to give the bank info, and they're like, "dude, we don't want it. We got a burn notice on you. Bye." And he's like, wtf? but that's all you missed.

Rob said...

Well your post was far longer than mine, but it looks like we've got a lot of the same taste. You'll definitely be on my rss list, and I hope you'll hang out over at my spot too.

Don't you think Donovan comes off as pretentious though? Even when he's doing good, he comes off that way to me...

Matt said...

mike - Thanks Mike! Thanks for the heads up. It's funny but I just noticed that Fast Food Nation is actually back up on the NYT bestseller list. That's some pretty impressive longevity.

sadie - Yeah, Burn Notice definitely has room for improvement, but I'm holding out for Bruce's sake. Glad to hear I didn't miss anything crucial.

rob - I'll definitely be heading back to your site. Anyone who likes the Conchords is aces in my book.
Mmm, I do think Donovan comes off as being somewhat pretentious, but I think a lot of it is from his hot shot spy persona. He used to be a major player and now he's doing jobs for peanuts. I think he's still throwing hissy fits while he comes to terms with his new station and he'll be less and less pretentious as he adapts. Or he could just be a d*ck. We'll see.

SQT said...

Ohhh and Bruce Campbell. Who doesn't love Bruce?

Anonymous said...