Burn Notice is off to a good start. The pilot presented a fairly lightweight spy yarn of the James Bond variety (complete with the requisite bikini-clad eye candy, thanks to the Miami setting), something we haven’t seen on the small screen since Alias went off the air. I wasn’t immediately drawn to leading man Jeffrey Donovan as "burned" spy Michael Westen (his Agency cut him loose with no explanation, hence the "burn notice"), but he grew on me by the end of the pilot. There’s a lot of voice-over, but it’s peppered with some nice, dry humor and the sort of spy advice that sounds just plausible enough to make it compelling. Some of it makes a lot of sense, like pointing out that bathrooms are good places to fight people because of all their hard surfaces, while other bits (recommending you grab a yogurt out of the fridge if you break into someone’s house so you can look like you belong) seem dreamed up by a writer who wanted it to sound good. But, unless you give it too much thought, it does sound good, and that’s all that really matters. It presents spying and cons as a procedural, but keeps it all fun.
Like Mission: Impossible and Alias, it’s as much a con show as a spy show. "A spy is just a criminal with a government paycheck," says Michael’s sometime paramour Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar, whose prior spy pedigree includes the femme fatale role in If Looks Could Kill!). Of course Fiona is a former IRA operative, so her moral compass may be a little out of whack. And since the main characters are all ex-spies, who don’t receive government paychecks anymore, I guess that makes them all criminals! But Michael is certainly a well-meaning criminal, sort of a Robin Hood figure. His delivery may be cool and off-handed, and he does his best to remain removed, but in each episode so far he’s ended up helping the weak and preyed-upon for very little compensation. In fact, his clients are so weak and helpless (an old woman bilked out of her life savings, a single immigrant father trying to raise a kid and make an honest buck) it borders on the sappy... but Donovan’s wry comments always pull us back from the edge, fortunately. Just when the single-father’s bullied son risks becoming too precious, he presents Michael with a comically violent drawing of him spraying bad guys with bullets, to which the ex-spy only says, "You really want me to shoot somebody, don’t you, kid?"
Michael does shoot people, but rarely kills them. There’s enough gunplay to be exciting, but not enough serious violence to mar the show’s light tone. (Even on Alias the heroes rarely killed anyone, always loading their guns with some sort of "stun" bullets or something!) For example, it’s a joy to watch him repeatedly disarm (ala The Maltese Falcon) a local drug dealer and then use his vastly superior training to put him out of business.
The problem with the first episode was that it didn’t really give the supporting cast enough to do. They’re all basically comic relief, with Fiona being an oversexed, Xenia Onatopp type for whom "violence is foreplay" (not for Michael), Michael’s slightly overbearing, hypochondriac mom, Madeline (Sharon Gless, blessedly much better here than she was in The State Within!) being a mild annoyance and his ally and fellow former agent Sam (Bruce Campbell) always eating or drinking in every scene he’s in.
Fortunately the second episodes rectifies this problem, and gives them all more to do. Madeline is worked better into the story, since she has some information Michael wants pertinent to his burn notice, and she’s humanized more in their interactions rather than being just a caricature. The same goes for Sam and Fi, who benefit greatly by being teamed up together and bickering the whole time. Campbell still seems underused, given his extraordinary comic gifts, but it looks like we’ll be seeing him do a lot more as the series progresses. Fiona’s homicidal streak is played again to good comic effect when she’s tasked to install a device on a con artist’s car that will neutralize it at the touch of a button, and instead she rigs a bomb. ("That will neutralize it!" she argues.)
Burn Notice debuted two weeks ago to solid ratings, and accomplished the highly impressive feat of actually improving upon its debut in Week Two! (Usually even the biggest shows decline after the premiere.) So hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of Burn Notice. If the quality remains, I’ll definitely be along for the ride. Plus, I’m intrigued by the ongoing storyline. While every episode is pretty much stand-alone, Michael’s quest to discover who burned him and why is compelling. It’s really nice to have a fun weekly spy series to tune into again (as opposed to the overly-intense sturm und drang of 24 or MI-5).