When Jeffrey Donovan first auditioned for the role of Michael Westen, a new TV spy, he didn’t go for the intense, Kiefer-Sutherland-on-“24” sort of thing. Donovan’s take was more laid-back. Sarcastic. Been there, done that.
In an instant, “Burn Notice” creator Matt Nix knew he’d found his star.
The last thing Nix wanted was for his hero to be, well ... “spy-ish.” He envisioned something un-“Alias,” a non-“24.”
“Those shows (depict) a very dramatic world,” Nix says. “People run around saying” - he adopts a deep, basso acting voice - “‘You don’t understand! We’re up against the hugest organization in the world, and we’re all going to die unless we do this thing in the next 42 minutes!’”
Back to regular Matt: “On ‘Burn Notice,’ we kinda go in the opposite direction.”
Like in the pilot, when Michael is stuck between two thugs in the back of a Mercedes. “You know, Mercedes makes an SUV now,” he says. “Big backseat ... surprisingly affordable, too.”
Michael Westen is no James Bond. He’s Stephen Colbert armed with sunglasses, a hot babe sidekick and perhaps some combustible homemade thermite powder, outwitting villains with levity as well as pyrotechnics.
The series, which debuted on the USA Network last summer, was a hit. And Thursday, after nearly a year, “Burn Notice” returns for a second season (at 10 p.m. EDT), as quirky and clever as ever.
The premise remains the same. Michael, a former agent, is stuck in his hometown of Miami, broke and blacklisted. (In spyspeak, a “burn notice” is like a pink slip, but worse.) He’s desperate to figure out who “burned” him and why, but he also needs to pay the rent. So he dabbles in crime-solving, helping folks in need using Special Ops training and assistance from Sam (Bruce Campbell), a semiretired colleague, and Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), a sultry, ruthless IRA operative - and Michael’s ex-girlfriend.
Each episode is like “Spying for Dummies,” with Michael explaining how to tail a suspect, use a flash grenade, escape from a house when all exits are blocked. (Bust out the air-conditioning unit, where the wall is weakest and when nobody’s watching.) Nix prides himself on getting the details right, and even has a private intelligence operative on staff.
When Donovan was first cast, he read up on spies and intelligence. “I don’t remember the (book) titles,” Donovan notes. “Or made me forget - by some brainwashing message embedded in the text,” he jokes. “They all spoke about the same thing. How boring and long the waiting is between actual missions. Kind of like sitting on a movie set.”
The show revels in that kind of reality. Michael’s world is shaken, not sugarcoated.
Take Madeline, his manipulative, chain-smoking mother (played by “Cagney & Lacey” vet Sharon Gless). “It’s a little weird to have a spy show with a mom on it,” Nix admits. “But this is a show where all the hard things are easy and the easy things are hard.”
Thug in the doorway? No problem. But a nagging mom? That 007 never had it so tough.
And then there’s the ex.
“I love how outspoken and unrestrained Fiona is,” Anwar says of her character. One minute she’s pushing Michael to rig a bigger bomb - the next, to face his issues. He knows her well enough not to judge her by her slinky attire.
“We were shooting a couple weeks ago, and I had a micro mini on,” Anwar says. “One of the writers said, ‘Do you know you’re gonna be loading and firing a shotgun? (Maybe) you should be wearing jeans.’ And I was like, ‘It’s Fi.’ He nodded and wandered off.”
Hey, the show tweaks convention, but there’s still got to be a sexy gal with a gun. Plus the requisite chases, the cool clothes, the muscle car (a ‘70s Dodge Charger).
In truth, “Burn” is a spy series moonlighting as a private-eye show - part “Rockford Files,” part “MacGyver.” The MacGyver act doesn’t come naturally, Donovan admits. “I usually pick a project at home, research it on the Internet, tackle the job myself, screw it up, then call in an expert at twice the original cost to fix it.”
But Donovan’s flair for accents has encouraged the writers to create more scenes where Michael goes undercover. Over the hiatus, the actor boned up on dialects - and jujitsu, for good measure. (He already knows aikido and has a black belt in karate.)
“Michael runs around with a gun and there are explosions on the show,” Nix says, “but the reason he defeats the bad guys always has to do with how smart he is.”
It’s the power of the brain over the bullet.
If that doesn’t work, Fiona can always whip out a missile launcher from under her skirt. Now there’s an ex a spy can count on.
WHY WE LOVE SPIES
There’s nothing covert about spies these days. They’re in films (“Get Smart,” “Wanted”), on Broadway (“The 39 Steps”) and in new novels, like the latest James Bond book. On TV the genre has thrived since the 1950s and shows like “Doorway to Danger.” So what explains our fascination?
“Spies in American culture are like real superheroes,” says “Burn Notice” creator Matt Nix. “In a time when anxieties have a lot to do with ... how shall I put this ... individuals with nefarious plans living sneakily among us, we like the idea of heroes living among us who are supersmart - and can save us.”
Some say we live in a climate of “clandestinity,” notes Wesley Britton in his book “Spy Television.” Corporate bureaucracy makes “outsiders of us all,” he writes. We work in cubicles “under the eyes of security cameras while supervisors ... oversee what electronic correspondence comes and goes from our computers.”
Or maybe we just love a good David vs. Goliath tale.
“I don’t know what it all (means),” Robert Vaughn, star of the popular “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” series, admitted to Britton in a 2002 interview. “I know it was good fun for us to do, and good fun for people to see.”