Jun 17, 2008

DVD Review: Burn Notice - Season One

Burn Notice is a show that grew on me throughout its first season, and continued to grow even more in its absence since that season ended late last summer. Re-watching it on DVD, all the episodes seem even better than the did the first time on USA. It’s got everything you could ask for from an old school, escapist spy hour the likes of which we’ve seldom seen since the Eighties, if not the Sixties: likable characters played by appealing and talented actors, exciting, engaging action scenes, an exotic setting, a compelling mystery and, owing to its Miami location, plenty of scantily-clad background beauties.

The series follows Michael Weston (Jeffrey Donovan), a spy who suddenly (and at a particularly inopportune moment) finds himself "burned." He’s been let go, cut off from all of his contacts and resources... and he has no idea why. Unable to travel, Michael finds himself trapped in Miami–but it’s far from paradise. In fact, it’s closer to hell for Michael, because it means being stuck with his needy, chain-smoking mother (Sharon Gless), his n’er-do-well brother and an adorably psychotic ex-girlfriend, Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) who happens to be a former IRA terrorist. In order to make a living while he tries to discover who burned him and why, Michael starts putting his spy skills to good use, helping people who are in the kind of trouble that requires cons, guns or mass quantities of kerosene to solve. Aiding him in this line of work are Fiona and his not altogether trustworthy pal, Sam (Bruce Campbell), a washed-up former operative who may spend most of his time boozing, womanizing and wisecracking, but can always come through in a pinch. Throughout the first season, the trio take on every enemy from ruthless drug cartels to rogue agents to a beautiful assassin to a family of bickering Israeli arms dealers, while at the same time avoiding the constant FBI surveillance on Michael.

To couch it in terms of classic spy television, Burn Notice combines the charm, wit and "knight errant" premise of The Saint with the just-plausible and always impressive gimmickry and elaborate scheming of Mission: Impossible in an appealing blend that’s familiar and new at the same time. Every week, Michael takes on a new role as he and his friends mount grandiose cons to right some wrongs, and instructs viewers in the finer points of spycraft through deftly-written voice-over with just the right amount of charming sarcasm. Whether he’s posing as a glamorous playboy arms dealer or a dangerously unhinged street thug, Donovan continues to project an aloof likability that reassures audiences without quite winking at them. The show belongs to him outright, which really speaks to Donovan’s talent, as he’s working with an incredibly talented supporting cast.

You can read my full appraisal of Season One here.

Now, onto the eagerly-awaited DVD set, out today and packed with extras.

First, the bad news, for those looking forward to hours and hours of audio commentaries to listen to thanks to Fox’s claim of "scene-specific audio commentary for each episode featuring show creator Matt Nix and stars Jeffrey Donovan, Gabrielle Anwar, Bruce Campbell and Sharon Gless." Apparently in this case, "scene-specific audio commentary" means commentary only on specific scenes! I think I would call that "select scene commentary," but it’s still certainly better than nothing. In fact, it’s arguable that when commentators record less commentary, the nuggets you get are better; no one runs out of steam. Then again, anyone who’s ever heard a Bruce Campbell commentary track before knows well that he would have no problem filling an entire episode on his own, so I have little doubt this whole crew could have pulled it off.

The good news, however, happily outweighs the bad: every moment of commentary included is highly entertaining and informative. We learn things, for instance, like the fact that Jeffrey Donovan trained as a dancer in college, but didn’t want that publicly revealed. We learn that Bruce Campbell would regularly sweat through four or five undershirts while filming scenes in hot, non-air-conditioned cars on the Miami set. (He even uses this nugget as an opportunity to work in an Old Spice plug, the first product placement I’ve ever heard in an audio commentary!) And we actually learn some useful stuff as well.

Donovan shares his acting secrets, such as surprising his co-stars whenever possible and catching them off-guard in order to create more conflict in their on-screen relationships. "That’s why everyone thinks I suck," he concludes, to which Anwar readily concurs. "But it’s all for your Emmy awards," he insists. "Hello!"

Matt Nix discusses his decision to have Michael and Fiona sleep together halfway through the first season, rather than drawing out a "will they or won’t they?" scenario throughout the whole series. He points out that real people in these kinds of non-relationships sleep together all the time, and it never diminishes the sexual tension; in fact, it usually makes things worse, as it does for Michael and Fiona.

These are only a few highlights of some very entertaining commentary, and even if it seems somewhat truncated by focusing on only select scenes, they do at least cover most of the best scenes from each episode. Above all, what we learn from the commentary is how well this creative team works together, how fond they appear to be for each other, and how comfortable they all seem kidding one another.

Also included is some interesting audition footage of Jeffrey Donovan and Gabrielle Anwar. Sometimes in audition footage, even the best actors look awful, but Jeffrey Donovan was so good in the room that he even comes off good on the tape, so you can definitely see why he got the part. You can also see why Gabrielle Anwar got the part: as on the show, she clearly didn’t wear a bra to her audition! Now, granted, she does give a pretty amazing audition as well (especially when she asks, "Shall we shoot them?"), but the bra thing couldn’t hurt, could it?

The gag reel is sure to please Bruce Campbell fans, as it contains plenty of his unused ad-libs.
A trio of montages rounds out the special features, and they’re actually not bad. The "Character Montage" doesn’t even sound worth watching, but it’s actually pretty fun, and well cut. "Girls Gone Burn Notice" is a montage of the show’s beautiful background bikini babes, cut to an annoying rap, but I won’t deny that it’s entertaining! (Hence the screencap.) The "Action Montage" is, well, what you’d expect. They’re all the sort of thing they usually show at wrap parties.

I would have appreciated some meatier making-of type featurettes, but we do get a lot of that from the commentary. (Such as how Miami’s Little Haiti effectively doubled for Nigeria in the show’s pilot.) Overall, the special features are pretty good for a TV show, and they’re just the icing on the cake of an excellent debut season of a really fun show. Burn Notice grows on you throughout the season, and then you’ll want to go back and re-watch the early episodes and love them even more now that you’ve gotten to know the characters. This is the sort of series you’ll end up watching over and over rather than just once, which makes this 4-disc set a must-buy for any spy fan.


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Unknown said...

I have seen Burn Notice TV Show several times on net. And I really like this show. Its concept is good.

Jessica Hart said...

Burn Notice is an American television series created by Matt Nix. This is really best show and I like it very much. Watch Burn Notice Season 4 online.

Anonymous said...

What I can say about this show...its good show and concept is also great. I have seen full Burn Notice Episode online. And I like this sitcom.