During the Cold War, spies were big news. Americans were told that our own agents were smarter, faster, and tougher than those darn Commies, and we were only happy to celebrate that superiority in books, films, and TV series. In recent years, the image of the American spy has taken a tumble. Americans questioned the effectiveness of US intelligence after 9/11, the Valerie Plame outing showed that the government was willing to sell out its own, and the CIA in recent weeks revealed its embarrassing “family jewels.”
Burn Notice presents us with a spy caught between these two eras. An old-fashioned kick-ass spy, Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) is on the outs with his employers and has been subjected to a “burn notice,” spy lingo for “You’re fired, so get lost—literally.” Why he was burned is a mystery at the moment, but the burn has created immediate problems for Westen. He finds himself in his hometown of Miami with no income and no answers. Westen is presented as equal parts Sam Spade, Jason Bourne, and Angus MacGyver. Trailed by FBI agents sent to monitor his whereabouts and forced to do private detective work to earn some cash, Westen relies on his wits, martial arts training, and knack for making high-tech gizmos out of everyday objects to stay a step ahead of both his fellow agents and bad guys.
In order to insure that we understand his thinking at each of these steps, the show provides a voiceover. Unfortunately, in the premiere episode, the voiceover only illustrated Westin’s decisive lack of wit. “I’ve never found a good way to hide a gun in a bathing suit,” he observed. Or, he told us that when planning to break into a house, one shouldn’t wear a mask or dark clothing, as it implies guilt, and once inside, one should grab a soda or snack from the fridge. This will set up the excuse that one has accidentally entered the wrong home more believable.
Still, you can understand why Westin would be talking to himself, given his current immediate circle, composed of three people from his past he avoided through his world travels and underground lifestyle. His nagging, chain-smoking, hypochondriac mother Madeline (Sharon Gless, largely wasted here) is not only intrusive, but she also reminds Westen of the strained relationships he had with his late father and yet-to-be-seen brother. He helps in all this remembering, as he has an annoying habit of recalling the last thing that happened between himself and whomever, such as, “The last time I saw him, he threw a phone book at my head.”
The other two individuals who pop up from Westen’s past are his ex-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), called Fee, and Sam (Bruce Campbell), a former spy turned beach loafer. They help Westen with his detective work, and both come with baggage. Fee is turned on by violence and still has feelings for Westen, and Sam is secretly reporting Westen’s whereabouts to the FBI. With friends like these, it’s no wonder Westen prefers being in Nigeria beating the crap out of bad guys. Westen’s immediate task is to resolve the mystery of his burn notice.
Unable to leave Miami, he’s earning money through cases referred by Sam and former spy Lucy (China Chow). His first case involved Javier (David Zayas), caretaker of a wealthy real estate agent, Mr. Pyne (Ray Wise). Javier was accused of stealing valuable paintings from his boss, who was the actual culprit. Not only did Westen establish Javier’s innocence and Pyne’s guilt, he also got to beat up Pyne’s bodyguard, twice, and teach Javier’s kid how to protect himself from the school bully. And oh yes, he also ran the local ecstasy dealer out of town. Not bad for a first episode’s worth of good deeds.
Like CSI: Miami, the other major crime drama set in Miami, Burn Notice is filled with muscular studs and buxom babes in bathing suits. It features countless shots of Westen weaving his way through crowds of beach-goers and partiers. This gratuitous parade of half-dressed models grows old quickly. I’m no prude, but don’t families, out of shape teens, and people over 25 go to the beach too?
Westen is set up to join USA’s growing roster of unusual crime solvers—the obsessive-compulsive Monk, fake psychic Shawn (Psych), and real psychic Johnny Smith (The Dead Zone). But Westen is decidedly unoriginal, despite and because he is granted stylish action sequences. The show’s most promising angle is its focus on the disgraced spy, certainly a timely topic. As Sam notes, spying today is “all about religion and oil.” Westen knows terrorism has altered the tactics of espionage, but he must work from the outside to get back into the game. The first episode of Burn Notice, however, did not take advantage of the dilemma, instead turning Westen into a barely updated Mannix.