Monday, June 29, 2009

Burn Notice — Season 1

The first thing that grabs your attention in Burn Notice is its disturbingly incessant glamor shots of Miami, that fetid den of gauche architecture designed to make the entire city look like an ostentatious playground for the wealthy. Cityscape shots always suggest that a show will simply gloss over the real innards of the locale in favor of the grand Hollywood look. It's not the sort of thing that inspires confidence in a show, particularly one about a private investigator who must deal with the seedy aspects of city life.

About halfway through the pilot, however, the establishing shots will be the last thing on your mind. Burn Notice takes the familiar idea of the private eye and gives it a unique twist, but its greatest strength lies in its pitch-perfect main cast and their effortless rapport with one another. Whether the main plots hold your interest -- which they sadly fail to do in several of the season's 11 episodes -- the show is buoyed by the interactions of these off-beat but believable characters.

Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), a freelance international spy, receives the titular burn notice while operating in Nigeria. As he explains in narration, you can't just fire a spy; you have to completely remove them from the grid. Suddenly, Michael's passport is flagged, his bank account frozen and his contacts unresponsive, leaving him to fend for himself with his cover blown. He shoots his way to an airport and wakes up in Miami, where he must reluctantly reconnect with his estranged mother while looking for a job to fit his particular skill set. Before long, he finds himself helping out needy people that allows him to use his intelligence background to investigate not terrorists, but small-time criminals (for a fee, of course).

There's something tantalizing about watching Westen trying to apply his sophisticated training on a shoestring budget, especially considering the people he must now spy on. In his previous line of work, he was someone working with unlimited resources, infiltrating poorly funded terrorist cells. Oh sure, such organizations make money through oil, drug, weapons trading and the like, but Michael just needed to keep his cover. Now he not only has to keep his cool; he has to take on criminals who are often well-connected in the richest parts of the city. Yes, he takes on his fair share of thugs, but the real villains are the higher-ups in drug cartels, the human traffickers, the gunrunners. It's a subtle inversion that makes Westen's quick thinking all the more impressive.

We get an insight into his thought process via his excellent voiceovers. Normally the downside of noir/detective stories, Burn Notice's narrations are reminiscent of Veronica Mars' in their wit and originality. Michael isn't telling us stuff we already know (or, worse, spoiling potential character development through easy exposition) but rather explains in quick, amusing bursts how people hiding in houses are always too busy worrying about shots coming through the door that they never worry about someone shooting through the weak plaster of the walls, or how to convince a suspicious mark to buy a cover I.D. These narrations add to both the comedy of the show as well as the technical details of the spy game.

But it wouldn't work nearly as well, if at all, without Donovan selling it. When it comes to television, most actors take a bit of time to find their characters. It's only natural, as the writers themselves take a bit of time to flesh them out: consider how much a Buffy or Fred Burkle or Jimmy McNulty changed in a single season, to say nothing of longer arcs. Yet Donovan is secure in his role from the start: his comic timing is as deadly as the weapons he's always brandishing, and he can sell any cover with a fearsome stone face.

Aiding Westen are two equally interesting characters, played by equally imbibing actors. Michael's ex-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), formerly a member of the IRA, helps him get to Miami and provides the pretty face needed to distract the hired hands of the big players. Plus, she more than knows how to hold her own in a fight, to say nothing of her propensity to rig explosives on anything and everything. The only downside to her character is that she's defined mostly by her sexual tension and relationship with Michael even though she's clearly got enough personality and backstory to work as her own character. She also provides a nice foil for the other woman in Michael's life, his mother, Madeline (Sharon Gless). Michael ran away from home when he was 17 because of his abusive father, and his comical dealings with her and her mundane issues carry an undercurrent of mutual feelings of regret and betrayal that occasionally rise to the surface.

But it's Bruce Campbell, of course, who steals the show as schlubby, retired Navy SEAL Sam Axe. A mojito-loving lout with connections ranging from the Pentagon to the sports bar on the corner, Sam is the one who generally points Michael to his next assignment, always assuring his friend that it will be an "easy job" no matter how many times it turns out to be the opposite. Yet his relationship with Fi is even more rewarding, as the two detest each other, and their incessant insults provide much of the season's comedy. Campbell has a few moments of completely serious drama which he plays superbly, but the real treat is his absurd demeanor, which Campbell plays up like the B-movie master that he is. His shtick is fairly subdued here, either to make it to TV or because the writers haven't fully tapped into his gold mine of a persona, but he still stands out in this marvelous, small cast.

All three of the main players play off one another as if they've been doing it for years, and frankly they eclipse a great deal of the writing of this season. It's not that the scripts are bad, per se; they just bleed together after a time. Michael is hunting for the people who burned him, but that only substantially enters the story in isolated spots, though he's usually ducking cars filled with Feds or CIA agents. The finale, however, suggests the start of a solid arc to take the pressure off the slight same-y nature of the weekly criminals, which will hopefully give the actors something meaty to do aside from dazzling with their timing and interplay.

So, the writing weighs the season down, as does the direction, which is too stylized for its own good. Like Chuck's first season, these 11 episodes blur together in the middle and are clearly looking for a concrete direction. Chuck brings up a number of similarities, as both are spy shows with neat twists with characters that are more concretely defined than their surroundings; I find myself sticking with these shows because I loved these characters from the moment I saw them, and I'm willing to see more even if they do the same thing every week. Nevertheless, Burn Notice doesn't hit many blatantly sour notes, and some tighter scripts and toned-down camera editing are all this show really needs to take off in a big way.

1 comment:

  1. S2 really picks up with story arcing. S3 has been superb so far.