I often make it a point to watch some of the more heavily hyped movies and TV shows long after their initial release. Doing so makes it easier to see their faults and their merits objectively, without being being unduly influenced by the publicity surrounding them.
Last night, I watched an episode of Burn Notice on the Encore Action channel (343 on DISH). The series stars Jeffrey Donovan as Michael Westen, a down-market James Bond. He is not as suave as Ian Fleming’s creation, is not nearly as well-dressed, and does not drive the exotic vehicles nor visit the exotic locales that were a big part of the appeal of the Bond franchise. This doesn’t make the series dull, though. Burn Notice has its own unique appeal, with a rough-and-tumble sensibility suited to the story of a spy facing a world of ever-shifting loyalties, where even the best people are morally compromised, and our hero must commit serious crimes to prevent much worse atrocities.
The title of the series refers to the ‘burn notices’ issued by intelligence agencies to agents or informants who have become unreliable. A ‘burned’ agent is cut off from all contact with the agency, which then refuses to acknowledge having ever had any connection with him. Because his work history is erased and his support network is gone, he has no identity and no legal way to earn a living.
Westen, having been ‘burned’ after a blown mission in Nigeria, and having later been framed for a series of mass murders, is in Miami, his hometown. He is unable to leave. His assets are frozen, his former contacts are out of reach, and he is under tight surveillance by the FBI. After a long, exhausting, and dangerous effort to contact his CIA handler, he has learned only that someone in a powerful position wants him ‘on ice’. If he stays in Miami and maintains a low profile, he can keep some measure of freedom. If he leaves, or if he talks publicly about his predicament, he will be pursued relentlessly, and will face imprisonment or death. He is unable, though, to overcome obsession with who burned him, and for what purpose. He works as an unlicensed private investigator to fund his probe into the matter.
The episode I watched last night began with Westen running from the local police. He gets into a brief shootout with them, causing an accident that causes a few minor injuries, and he has to steal a change of clothing from a parked car. This opening identifies him as a fugitive, and it reminds us that he cannot have a normal life. He calls Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell), a semi-retired undercover agent, and Westen’s last fragile and occasional contact with the official intelligence apparatus. Sam tells him what to do to avoid immediate danger.
Walking down a street on the way to investigate something at Sam’s request, Westen sees a food cart explode a hundred yards ahead of him. A voiceover informs us that, “For an undercover agent, any coincidence should be taken as a sign that he is being followed.” Westen looks around to find his tail, and he sees his own image in some of the TV screens in an electronics store he has just walked past. He enters the store with his gun drawn. He sees a body on the floor near the rear wall, then sees Simon Escher walk out of a back room, his own gun pointed at Weston. Escher is the man who committed the crimes for which Westen was framed. Escher shows Westen a series of videos of said crimes, and says that he wants his own life history back. Westen says that he would be happy to give it up. Escher says that it’s not that simple. He wants Westen to arrange a meeting with “Management” (John Mahoney), the head of a prominent black ops syndicate. To insure Westen’s cooperation, Escher shows him video of a bomb his team has planted in a large hotel, and he warns that thousands of people will die if Westen fails to arrange the meeting.
The rest of the episode is a race against time. Unsure he can count on Management’s cooperation, and knowing that Escher is dangerously unstable- even psychotic, Westen asks Sam, accompanied by Fiona Gienanne (Gabrielle Anwar), Westen’s sometime love interest, to find the explosives expert Escher hired to plant the bomb. Meanwhile, the FBI is putting pressure on Westen’s mother (Sharon Gless), to help them track him “for his own good”. Escher will not meet with Management unless Westen is present, and FBI pursuit could keep him away. Unless all of the pieces fall into place, the bomb will be detonated, thousands of people will be killed, and Westen likely will be killed or arrested by the FBI or the Miami police.
Based in this episode, I give Burn Notice an A-. It is one of the better action-adventure shows aired in recent years, though not without flaw. The plot moves at breakneck speed, and the dialogue is believable, without the excessive macho posturing and the sophomoric one-liners that too often mar the genre. The plot is convoluted, but not implausibly so, though character motivations sometimes seem slightly weak. The series would be stronger if we knew what foreign interests the villains are working for.
Jeffrey Donovan is a limited actor, his emotional range confined to pique and mild amusement, but for the role of Michael Westen he’s good enough. Bruce Campbell, in a smaller role, makes Sam Axe the most interesting regular character in the series. His superannuated frat boy demeanor enlivens every line he speaks. Sharon Gless is heartbreakingly believable as Madeleine, Westen’s mother. Garret Dillahunt is perfect as the villain, convincingly communicating his charm, his twisted sense of humor, his ruthlessness, and his psychopathic excesses. Gabrielle Anwar, as Fiona, didn’t make much of an impression on me, but may prove more interesting in other episodes.
Burn Notice is extremely violent, and the dilemmas faced by its protagonist do not lend themselves to neat and simple moral lessons. Most viewers, in fact, will be a bit uneasy with some of the ethical compromises made by even the most virtuous characters. For these reasons, the series is unsuitable for small children. For others, Burn Notice provides diverting and fast-paced entertainment, and without the serial insults to viewer intelligence common in action-adventure shows.
Burn Notice is aired at 6:00 Central Time on Thursdays on Encore Action, channel 343 in the Dish Network lineup.