Burn Notice is a US television show originally aired on the USA Network. It debuted in June 2007 and as of 2011 is still in production. I've worked my way through most of the first season, so this review is really about the show concept and early execution rather than its development.

The Genre

At its base, this is a 'weekly adventure show' or a 'crime/detective drama.' It follows in the well-trodden footsteps of such shows as The Equalizer, Magnum, P.I., Stingray and oodles of others, in which a protagonist with a mysterious but highly useful past has, for whatever reason, come to a place where they end up 'helping people with their problems' on a show by show basis. These problems, of course, range from the complex and humorous to the simple but lethal, and naturally the solutions posed (while they may make *use* of law enforcement) tend to be more personally handled.

The Premise

Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), a 'well-known' covert operations agent working ("only indirectly") for the United States Government, is in the middle of a mission at the beginning of the first episode. During this mission, which seems to involve making a payoff to a Nigerian warlord for petroleum industry security, he makes a call back to his base and (to his surprise) rather than getting the account numbers he is asking for, he is told that a 'burn notice' has been received about him, and that he is blacklisted. In practice, this means he is cut off from any contacts or assistance and has to escape the situation he is in on his own. He does, not without injury, and makes it to the airport and leaves Nigeria.

He wakes up in Miami, Florida. Apparently his 'emergency contact' (an old girlfriend and, um, IRA terrorist) named Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar) got called by the airline when he passed out on the plane and got him home. He swiftly discovers that he is under FBI surveillance, and all his bank accounts have been frozen. As he tells us in the intro montage, being burned means you have no job history, no assets, no credit; word filters down through a retired friend of his in the area Sam (Bruce Campbell, hooray!) that if he leaves Miami, he'll be flagged as a fugitive.

Michael has a bunch of problems. He needs to know who burned him and why. More immediately, he needs to come up with a place to live and enough cash to live on, and he needs to handle the fact that Fiona (in addition to being a bit trigger-happy) isn't pleased that he left her unexpectedly the last time they saw each other. Oh, and also, he has to deal with the fact that his mother lives in Miami, and he's spent the last (large-N) number of years trying to be on the other side of the planet from her.

So, of course, he ends up finding out that there is (conveniently) a continuous stream of people in Miami who need 'help' that they're willing to pay cash for. And, handily, his years of experience in covert operations gives him just the tools he needs. He, with Fiona and Sam's help, sets out to service this need in order to earn the money he needs to find out what happened to him and why.

The Format

Burn Notice is a one-hour timeslot show on US network television, which means each episode is approximately 42-43 minutes of content to allow for the 17-18 minutes of advertising that is standard. The series pilot is roughly double that length. It's a single-camera show, meaning there is only one perspective filmed per scene. It's broadcast in 1080i HDTV; DVD sets are available, and streaming versions of back seasons are available in a variety of resolutions. Each episode generally introduces and completes a short drama story which is self-contained; in addition, 'arc' plot elements are present in between 50-75% of the episodes. The latter appear as scenes from a multi-episode storyline parallel to the 'main' story, usually without much context.

How Is It?

Ah, the subjective part of the review. I avoided this show when it first came out -it is extremely stylized, and this shows on the blizzard of print and outdoor advertising that preceded its launch. I was concerned that it would play very heavily on 'secret agent' tropes in the way that US network television always seems to - as a handy 'get out of plothole free' device which can be mined whenever your character needs something which doesn't seem in context for a normal American city existence. I also just don't like very 'stylish' looking shows. The ads look too much like Miami Vice for me not to wince in 1980s embarrassment.

I recently checked it out on a family recommendation, and I'm glad I did. It's not the best thing since sliced bread. It's not some stellar piece of television like The Wire. It's not 'gripping', it's not 'hilarious'. On the other hand, it does set out to do a particular thing (the aforementioned 'detective drama') and it does it well. Michael Westen has just enough convenient mystery past to let them explore situations where regular folks wouldn't be able to cope, without making him into a superman. In the first sequence of the first episode, they in fact show him getting the stuffing kicked out of him before he manages to escape. If I had to describe the trait that his character has that makes the 'beached spy' thing tolerable, it's that he's very, very pragmatic.

The show has a narration voice-over. It's always Michael, talking about the situation he's in or what he's doing. This can be annoying if handled poorly. Here it makes good sense - whenever he's about to pull a 'spy trick' or do something that doesn't make sense to a civilian, the narration tells us what, why, and sometimes how. They don't give away plot points, but they do use it to shortcut tedious explanations about why he suddenly decided to, say, duct-tape a reference point on a wall and shoot at it.

Although it has the same scenery, clothing, cars, and sunglasses as Miami Vice, it isn't Miami Vice. It's not nearly as heavy-handed as Michael Mann. There is snark (oh my yes); snark at the world, at our expectations of it, at relationships, at family, at all the good and familiar topics for comedy. There's also some fun 'The Anarchist Cookbook' meets MacGyver stuff; in every episode, Michael is cracking open cheap cell phones to build bugs, or hotwiring a small TV to make a bugscanner, or (my fave so far) making a suitcase full of fake C-4 out of cake icing ('fondant', he adds for precision) complete with 'hey, can I lick that when you're done?' jokes. Here, though, killing people when required is definitely not off the menu. Michael Westen would laugh hysterically at MacGyver, I think. Although they sometimes do fall into TV Tropes traps (you can't set off four pounds of C-4 while standing thirty feet away in the open, people; C-4 doesn't make a big fireball it makes a nasty shockwave) I find myself willing to forgive that, because they seem to do it less frequently than one might expect.

In closing, I'll just say this. I like this show. I like it because I now have approximately 75 more episodes of predictable entertainment to look forward to, and because the actors are good enough to make the various relatively tired plots fun to watch again. Recommended for light entertainment if it's easy to get. It's a fun series to watch, and you won't find yourself obsessively saying "Oh, just one more!" all the time like I did with The Wire, which means it's a good thing to have available as an option.

Final disclaimer, though - I've only watched two-thirds of the first season. It's currently on season 5, I think, so things may have changed.

Addendum: 4 seasons later

So four seasons in, the show has gotten a bit tired. Michael's situation (being burned in Miami) isn't static, because they've made it very clear that his NUMBER ONE PRIORITY is figuring out who burned him and how to get 'back in.' The problem is that this means the arc plot points, which tend towards one basic 'arc' per season, are getting really really tired by now. Sure, it should be complex to figure that stuff out, but it's just getting tedious: find this guy, oops he's dead, find out what he was doing, get a name, find out who that is, track them back, oh my goodness it's another layer of the cake, run around for a bit, find another person...and so on. The episode plots are still fun if approached as one-off candy, but I'm caring less and less about the 'bigger story.'

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