Sep 28, 2007

TV Review: Burn Notice Season Wrap-Up

USA’s summer spy show Burn Notice wrapped up its premiere season last week, and I have to say, it was a pretty stellar season. Burn Notice started out as an agreeable way to pass an hour, aided immeasurably by Bruce Campbell in a supporting role, Miami eye candy (of the scenic and bikini-clad varieties), and threat-of-the-week plots that resolved themselves in an hour and didn’t require the viewer to have seen everything that had come before to know what was going on. All the necessary ingredients for escapist summer fun. But as it ran its course, Burn Notice revealed itself to be more than just the sum of its very appealing parts. The fact that it’s the first episodic spy series in a long while that doesn’t dangle dozens and dozens of ongoing plot threads for the viewer to keep track of definitely helps. It’s not 24 or Alias, wrapped up in its own dense and impenetrable continuity. But unlike the mighty Eighties action hours it emulates so well (Magnum P.I., The Equalizer, Remington Steele, etc.), it does have an ongoing storyline, and in that paradox lies its genius. Creator Matt Nix managed to sustain the first season with a single serial aspect, the burning question of who "burned" ex-spy Michael Weston. This plot was doled out in manageable, bite-size nuggets all season long. In each episode, Michael got another small piece of the puzzle that got him closer to discovering the truth, but the pieces were so small that it didn’t matter if a viewer missed one or had never even seen another episode. Yet they were big enough to keep record audiences (for USA) tuning in week after week, eager for the next piece, but probably more eager to spend some time with a group of likeable characters.

In my review of the pilot, I was a little critical of Michael’s frequent voice-overs. But as the show went on, I really grew to love them. It was a good device to let us in on the thoughts of a very guarded character, and it doled out what sounded like good, practical advice for carrying out spy work. And that’s exactly why people watch spy shows, isn’t it? Because a part of all of us yearns to be a spy? (Of the exciting, fictional variety, at least.) Having Michael tell us how week after week really tapped into that collective desire. Jeffrey Donovan delivered these bits of narration quite well, too, in a laid-back, conversational-but-instructive style. I wasn’t sure about him as a leading man to begin with, but, like the show itself, he thoroughly won me over. As did Gabrielle Anwar as the feisty Fiona, Michael’s gun-crazy on and off girlfriend. (I suppose their relationship was another serial plotline, but all shows have that. And even if you do count it, two plots to keep track of is a lot less stressful than all the balls Lost has in the air!) I’ll confess an attraction to Ms. Anwar ever since her sexy spy debut in If Looks Could Kill, but she played a well-written role well, and drew me into her character well beyond the skimpy tropical outfits. Some of my favorite moments were the ones she shared with Bruce Campbell. Those two supporters displayed very good chemistry together.

Bruce himself did a great job too. Of course, as a fan of his work ever since The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., it was his presence that originally drew me to this series, but I was disappointed that his part, Sam, seemed both underwritten and underused at first. As the series progressed, however, either the writing for him improved, or Bruce managed to do more with less. I’m not really sure which, but Sam was a much better character by the end of the season. This was thanks in large part to those scenes with Anwar, and also thanks to an expanded role in the final three or four episodes. I like that Sam may be the comic sidekick, but he’s no bumbler. He’s an ex-spy too, and he proved himself thoroughly capable when he put down his beer, left the pool-side, and picked up a sniper rifle in some of those final episodes. (It is too bad, however, that he didn’t get to share any scenes with his former Xena co-star Lucy Lawless when she guest-starred!)

In twelve episodes, Burn Notice sort of resolved its season-long arc, but left us hanging with an inevitable (and satisfying) cliffhanger. I’m looking forward to Season Two, and I hope Nix is up to the challenge of continuing the story without ruining it, of staying fresh as well as familiar. I’ll definitely be tuning in next June to find out.

As for Nix, he seemed to come out of nowhere. But a recent LA Times profile dispelled that notion: "After more than eight years writing feature scripts that may have sold but were rarely produced, Matt Nix learned this summer that it’s true what they say about Hollywood: It takes 10 years t to be an overnight success." The article goes on to reveal that he’s 36, and not 20 (which is about how old he looks), so frustrated screenwriters can stop hating him!

Nix claims that Michael Weston is basically him, but if he’d been a spy. Who got burned. So... not really him, but the sarcastic voice is his, through and through. So much so that he’ll stop staff writers from making good jokes that he wouldn’t come up with himself. "I’m responsible for making the show sound like it’s supposed to sound. It either needs to feel like something I wrote or something I wish I wrote," he says. On the subject of network compromises, he shares that Burn Notice was originally set in Newark, NJ, which seems like a much more miserable city to be trapped in than Miami. But USA kept insisting that relocating to Miami would lighten things up, and eventually they just told him to switch. Now Nix is happy with Miami. "It’s so much more fun to have this dark character highlighted against this background. Nobody’s ever done a show about a guy in a tropical vacation wonderland who hates being in a tropical vacation wonderland."

The writer also weighs in on the thorny, age-old TV issue of "will they or won’t they?" and his decision to allow his on-again/off-again leads to have sex with each other so early on. (In the past, pundits have claimed such unions have ruined shows like Moonlighting, Remington Steele and The X-Files. Others have been frustrated that the leads never did get together onscreen in shows like The Avengers. You couldn’t win.) "The conventional answer on television is that people with rocky relationships can never have sex. Then the tension is gone," he admits. "I realized in my experience people with on-again/off-again relationships are always having sex. Having sex doesn’t release any tension at all; it makes it worse." You know what? He was right. I’d say there’s even more sexual tension in Michael and Fiona’s relationship now.

Finally, the Times article tantalizingly discloses that Nix is currently working on a "European version of the show." I’m not sure why Europe can’t simply take the American version; it worked with all the action hours in the Eighties. But the idea of a Euro-set remake intrigues me, so I’ll be keeping my ears open for more information on this...


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