Burn Notice, for those of you without cable, follows the weekly adventures of Michael Westen, a former U.S. intelligence agent. Put on a blacklist (i.e., “burned”) by his employers, Michael got stuck in Miami with very little cash, no job history he can bank on and a globe full of enemies. To make ends meet while figuring out who burned him, and why, Michael helps people whose enemies live above the law. Think A-Team meets Miami Vice with some Bourne Identity thrown in.
Michael relies on the help of two of his most colorful friends – Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar), the ex-IRA assassin whose fondness for Michael matches her love for C-4; and Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell), a retired FBI agent who prefers socializing with beach bunnies to shooting it out with drug dealers. His mother provides him with equal measures of support and stress, offering him a place to crash but also questioning him about his shady dealings. And Michael leverages favors from law enforcement, the criminal underworld or any of his “clients” to learn more about the show’s overarching mystery: who burned him and why.
Burn Notice blazes miles ahead of its competitors (in action/drama and thriller/comedy, two ancient genres) due to its remarkable cleverness. Michael rarely uses a gun in the course of an episode, preferring instead to talk past, trick or disarm his opponents. Without his agency resources, he has to improvise complex technical devices from common household equipment. He plays enemies off against each other, runs mind games within mind games, and does it all with a grin. Not only that, but a constant voice-over narrates the details of Michael’s job – the world from a spy’s perspective.
Here’s Michael in the pilot episode, making a bug out of two cell phones:
To build a listening device, you need a crappy phone with a mike that picks up everything. But you want the battery power and circuits of a better phone. It’s a trick you learn when the purchasing office won’t spring for a bug.
And here’s a short list of clever things Michael did in the most recent episode, “End Run”:
- Constructed a cell phone eavesdropping device out of a coat hanger antenna, a Pringles can, some pencils and a USB cable.
- Smashed into a secured office, then talked his way out of getting arrested.
- Tricked a paranoid gun nut out of his house without having to draw a weapon himself.
- Isolated and overpowered a two-man security team – again, without firing a weapon of his own.
- Deduced a bad guy’s weak point – his family – from a few context clues and the name of an overseas bank.
That’s more tradecraft, gadgetry and clever fisticuffs than you’d see in an entire season of 24.
So we’ve identified Burn Notice as one of the smartest and most fun series on television today. But why is it so good?
I’ve witnessed an interesting twist on the ex-spy phenomenon. I never directly worked for the government; the closest I ever came to the US govt was subcontractor to DOD. But my life has been shady and complicated enough, that my friends over time realized that I was some kind of spy. When confronted, I’ve had to deny it and convincingly. I’ve done my best. They seemed to resent me for the denial. I can’t tell if a) they believe the denial and they’re annoyed with me for some aspect of that reality, or b) they don’t believe the denial and are annoyed that I won’t share with them.
In Burn Notice, Michael’s predicaments always end happily. My social predicaments, originating from very similar conflicts, go to worse. Being caught in a lie, letting people believe one version of your events (and character, and motives) when the truth is far whiter — these realities are nearly unacceptable. Maybe if I had ‘saved the world’ I’d feel it worthwhile. The best I ever did was give a bunch of analysts more color and flavor and nuance to lose themselves in. I feel like I did something very similar to a junior, second-rate programmer who was assigned to do interior design for a popular video game. Except that coder walked away with bullet points on his resume, and friends who knew he was what he seemed. I had to pose as a shiftless, serial-unemployed loser working well below his capacity, doing jobs like construction, being an extra in movies, working in a theme park or in retail.
The narration and Spy-101 aspects of Burn Notice have always been the biggest draw for me. Even when the in-text circumstances are being sold as dire, there’s usually a great impishness to the tone — it’s as if Ferris Bueller went the Martin Blank route, and learned to adapt his particular skill set for brilliant use in the government cloak & dagger world.
Over at Alan Sepinwall’s blog, several commenters have taken up narrating their lives in the Michael Westen way for the fun of it. “When visiting overthinkingit.com, it’s usually best to read through the entire article before commenting. Unfortunately, when you’re on the run from a shadowy non-governmental organization, sometimes you’ll have to make do with a quick skim…”
Sam Ace is an ex-Navy SEAL. Didn’t work for the FBI. He just has a lot of FBI contacts.
@detail smurfer: huh. I recall that only now that you’ve mentioned it (I think the S1 finale had Michael rifling Sam’s storage unit for a Navy SEAL picture), but I just had him linked in my mind with the FBI for so long.
@stabbim: I think Martin Blank was already pretty far along the Ferris Bueller route (“I killed the President of Paraguay with a fork”), but that’s a really good analogy.