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Burn Notice: Season One

(Fox; US DVD: 17 Jun 2008)

“When a spy gets fired, he doesn’t get a call from the lady in H.R. and a gold watch. They cut him off. They make sure he can never work again. They can’t take away his skills or what’s in his head, so they take away the resources that allow him to function. They burn him.”—Michael Weston (voice over)


Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) is a spy, or it is probably more accurate to say, an ex-spy.  He is the subject of a burn notice, his agency’s way of cutting off and blacklisting its employees.  While in the middle of conducting agency business, he realizes he has been burned and is immediately beaten and chased through the streets of Nigeria.  Probably the most telling moment in the entire sequence involves Westen stealing a motorcycle, yet stopping long enough to put on a helmet and his sunglasses before continuing on his escape.  Here is our protagonist. 


Sent to Miami so that the agency can keep tabs on him, Westen is reunited with his mother, Madeline (Sharon Gless), Sam (Bruce Campbell), another former spy, and Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), an ex-IRA guerrilla and his ex-girlfriend.  Once Michael fully realizes just what has happened to him, he begins his search to find out what brought about his getting burned. 


Making things difficult is the actual nature of the burn notice.  Specifically, the fact that he is no longer able to communicate with others at the agency and his financial assets have all been frozen by the government.  Finding a way around these obstacles and trying to move closer to an answer is at the center of the series. 


What makes the series work is the attempt to go beyond the conventions of the spy genre.  Creator Matt Nix has made some key choices that have been integral to the unique tone of the show. The use of voice over is one technique that is employed much more specifically and less introspectively than usual.  For instance, Westen’s voice over frequently offers information into a spy’s approach – tactical maneuvers, technical skills, and undercover rationale – rather than insight into his feelings.  When more personal thoughts are revealed, this tends to lend certain moments more emotional weight, particularly those dealing with Michael and Fiona’s unresolved relationship.


One of Burn Notice’s most successful choices involves the use of on location shooting in Miami.  The city is used exceedingly well in establishing a distinct environment that goes beyond the usual South Beach shots and extends to other parts of the city.  The authenticity achieved by shooting on location (unlike the Miami-located, yet mostly California-shot, Dexter) goes a long way in making the series stand out.


Gless, like Campbell, plays her role with a great deal of humor, a wonderful contrast to the character’s neediness and manipulative tendencies.  Madeline is shameless in her attempts to get Michael’s attention, lying and playing the victim whenever it suits her purposes; and at the same time she is in denial about her sons’ unhappy childhoods caused by her abusive late husband.  There are some wonderful scenes between Michael and Madeline that address these issues in subtle ways, oftentimes with humor to diffuse the seriousness of the situation.


Campbell’s Sam is really the comic relief of the series, as well as one of Michael’s few allies.  His boozy, ladies man persona makes him seem incapable to much of the covert and intricate work necessary in helping Michael, but Sam was also a spy and it becomes clear that he was a good spy.  Fiona is portrayed as the trigger-happy, always ready for a confrontation counterpart to Sam.  Fiona is happy as long as she is blowing things up.  However, her relationship with Michael gives her another dimension, as opposed to the crazy, ex-IRA militant.         


“Fighting for the little guys is for suckers. We all do it once in a while, but the trick is to get in and out quickly without getting involved. That’s one trick I never really mastered.”  This is what makes Burn Notice more than just a chase to find out the reason Michael has been burned—he is continually drawn into having to help others.  The fact that this often occurs on the way to getting the bigger answers is not the point.  Michael’s search is not as straightforward as it would initially seem, and this gives the series another facet to explore.


Special features include selected scene commentary for all 11 episodes by Jeffrey Donovan, Sharon Gless, Bruce Campbell, Gabrielle Anwar, and show creator Matt Nix.  The commentary highlights the obvious affection the actors have for one another and the material, and offers plenty of insight into the process that goes into making the series. 


There is also a character montage and action montage; a gag reel; “Girls Gone Burn Notice”, a pointless and somewhat insulting montage of some of the scantily-clad women that appear in the background of the show; audition footage for both Donovan and Anwar; and an Everlast music video for another television drama, Saving Grace.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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Burn Notice carves out its own little niche as a fun, summer diversion and a solid, well-executed series all at once.
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One of the more engaging aspects of the series is Michael’s voiceover explanations of spy tips and tricks. These crafty techniques are integral to training spies.
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