Straddling the Line Between Dark Drama and Light Comedy in ‘Burn Notice: Season Four’

The fourth season of USA’s Burn Notice picks up immediately where the previous season left off: Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) alone in an unknown location, reasons unknown. He soon meets his new handler, the mysterious and well-connected Vaughn (Robert Wisdom), and Michael reluctantly agrees to work for him in finding season three’s big villain, Simon.

Things quickly become complicated for Michael as he, along with Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and Sam (Bruce Campbell), unwittingly burn a fellow spy, Jesse Porter (Coby Bell), on Vaughn’s instructions. Soon after, Jesse enlists Michael in helping him find who burned him, all the while unaware of Michael’s own role. The introduction of Jesse into the already well-established dynamic of Michael, Fiona, and Sam is a tricky one, made more so by Michael’s unintentional betrayal.

Jesse’s role rapidly causes friction within the group as he has Michael’s skills and confidence, and is not always ready to defer to him. Their power struggles also extend beyond the short-term jobs they take on and the larger mission to unravel Jesse’s involvement in Vaughn’s big picture. Jesse and Fiona often openly flirt despite her relationship with Michael, making for an uncomfortable and sometimes antagonistic alliance.

While Jesse and Vaughn are new additions to season four, they are by no means the last in a series of characters that would follow a complex web filled with shady organizations, government conspiracies, and disloyalties. The first half of the season involves a great deal of connections and false leads that were often intentionally confusing and frustrating. However, the second part of the season proved to be much more thrilling and a satisfying payoff to what had come before.

Season four does a nice job of bringing together both new and old characters, as well as carrying forward threads from the previous three seasons. Characters like Barry, the money launderer or Nate, Michael’s brother, and threads like the complicated relationships between Michael and his mother and Michael and Fiona, are incorporated well and often. Whether they be more plot-driven or personal in nature, these recurring characters and themes add another layer to what could have turned into a slick and superficial series. As there is now much more to draw from in terms of the show’s history, the story grows richer, yet manages to maintain its initial charm.

Burn Notice has always been able to make excellent use of its location shooting in Miami, as well as the small, stylish editing choices it employs. This season continues highlighting this strength while also adding another layer to the core relationships in the series. Michael, Fiona, and Sam, along with Michael’s mother, Madeline (Sharon Gless), have consistently had outstanding chemistry, yet in many ways this season brought it even more to the surface.

In keeping the secret of Jesse’s burning, and the eventual fallout from his discovering the truth, the emotional stakes within the group are heightened and tested. Loyalties are called into question and Michael’s independent streak manages to create more intense confrontations and problems, particularly in his relationships with Fiona and his mother.

Despite the heaviness that hung over the season, Burn Notice is still a series that understands the appeal of levity and uses it wisely. Campbell’s Sam is the obvious comic relief, yet the dynamic between Michael and Jesse is also sometimes given a lighter touch. Additionally, some of the returning villains from past seasons such as Larry (Tim Matheson) and Tyler (Jay Karnes) are given regular moments of humor that remind the audience Burn Notice doesn’t take itself too seriously.

That’s not to say that the series isn’t well written and executed. On the contrary, it’s precisely in the straddling of the line between dark drama and light comedy that Burn Notice excels. Few series could inspire equal levels of investment and escapism in its viewers, while Burn Notice seamlessly does so.

The fourth season of Burn Notice may have had its share of large overriding mysteries and twists, but it didn’t abandon the smaller stories that always offered more insight into these characters and their motivations. It’s a series that could easily spin into only focusing on the big picture stuff, but wisely, it stays true to the balance of professional spies at work and ex-spies for hire. In showing both sides, Burn Notice carves out its own little niche as a fun, summer diversion and a solid, well-executed series all at once.

The DVD set comes with a fair amount of bonus features, including deleted scenes; featurettes and documentaries; commentary on the season finale episode, “Last Stand”; and a gag reel. They are the fun additions that fans of the previous DVD releases have come to enjoy and season four is no different.

RATING 7 / 10