Friday, July 3, 2009

Burn Notice — Season 2

I love television shows with flawed first seasons: when a show debuts with unexpected critical (and maybe commercial) success -- Veronica Mars, The Sopranos, Lost -- subsequent seasons tend to fall short of unfair expectations. But a promising show with a good cast and some writing that needs smoothing often ramps up in its second season to justify its renewal: take Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Simpsons, for instance. Burn Notice had the premise and the cast to warrant a second season, but its plots were too repetitious. But with the introduction of a potential story arc in the finale, I looked forward to seeing the writers tighten things up a bit.

The second season is indeed a notable step up from the first but, ironically, it's the weekly plots that made me tune in over the ongoing arc concerning the truth behind Michael's burning. Where the last season seemed to consist of little more than a string of cartel lieutenants, smugglers and the odd thug, here we deal with marks as varied as rap moguls and former spies, medical black marketeers and Russian mafiosos.

These standalone jobs allow the cast to solidify their excellent chemistry and to explore the characters further. Gabrielle Anwar's Fiona is the best ass-kicking female on TV since Battlestar Galactica came to an end and took Starbuck with it. I imagine someone will snatch the title from her if and when Dollhouse picks up steam, but for the moment no one can compare. Fi breaks off their sort-of relationship with Michael in the first episode of the new season, allowing her to build on her own. It's strange for a show to go from a relationship to a "will-they-won't-they" scenario and not the other way around, but it nicely allows both characters to flesh out their sexual tension while growingindependently of one another. Appropriate for such a character, we see Fi take cases involving abused or murdered kids and women to heart, which allows her to focus the fiery personality we got in the first season.

Jeffery Donovan only solidifies Michael Westen as a great TV character. Donovan's timing is even sharper, but now he adds his repertoire of terrible accents which make Mike even funnier. Bad accents are usually the sign of desperation in comedy, but Donovan does not play them up for laughs. By delivering them with Michael's stone face and confidence, the humor is that people buy those voices willingly. He also gets some nice moments with his mother that aren't quite as forced and obvious as the first season's. SharonGless sadly doesn't appear as often (though she's in most of the episodes), but she pulls off the chain-smoking heart of the show with aplomb. I also like the touch that Michael, whose career required him to be a master liar, can fool anyone but his mom.

Then, there's Campbell. I noted in my previous review that Campbell stole the show routinely in the first season but that he was still holding back his usual self a bit. Here, he gives himself some slack and the show reaps tons of gold from him. Campbell's status as a B-movie icon makes it easy to dismiss him as a face (and chin) instead of abona fide actor, but watch how quickly he can turn from flippant goofiness to chilling severity without a moment's pause and it's hard to write him off as just "Ash." His highlight, and indeed the highlight of the entire season, must be hisantagonizing of the vindictive rapper (played by Method Man) in "Bad Blood": in a 45-second spree of comic gold, Sam attempts to antagonize and trap the producer by insulting rap, professing his love for Kenny G and even attempting to rap himself. It's the funniest thing I've seen on television since JackDonaghy attempting group therapy with Tracy by acting out Sanford & Son on 30 Rock.

But apart from the humor and the character growth in these disconnected stories, the plots are simply excellent. Virgil, a fairly inconsequential character from the first season, returns to ask Michael for a favor, but we discover that Virgil might also be seeking to rekindle an oldrelationship with Madeline. "Double Booked" pits Michael against a former colleague who serves to give us an insight to the kind of person Michael might have been back when he was in the amoral spy game. "Bad Breaks" contains perhaps the most inspired of the weekly plots by mixing a heist with Home Alone. Featuring a guest spot by Firefly's own Mark Sheppard (Badger) as the lead robber, the episode makes Michael's attempts to foil the robbery and save hostages gripping even as you're laughing along with his constant mind games and sabotage.

The "Burn" story, by contrast, takes a while to get off the ground. That sensual, mysterious voice on the cell phone giving orders to Michael belongs to Carla (Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer), who ostensibly got Michael burned so he would work for her and her organization. She seductively coerces Michael into completing his new assignments by threatening to kill his friends and family and all the usual stuff. Poor Mike: first he loses his spy job, and now he has sinister jobs forced upon him. It's a nice foil for the relatively mundane assignments he continues to take from those in need. Sadly,Helfer is given little to play with here; a shame, considering how well she perfectly the evil seductress on BSG. She actually loses some menace when we see her in person and she stops simply being the unseen voice.

Thankfully, we get a more hands-on villain to liven things up, though he doesn't get the face time he needs until the second half. The deranged spy "wrangler" Victor (Michael Shanks) impresses from the start, though; where Carla's wrangling consists of veiled threats delivered with the sinister tone of aprofessional , Victor looks and acts like he'd like nothing more than to go find Mike's friends and family and kill them himself. It's a damn shame that he drops out of the scene so soon after he first appears, but he comes back with a vengeance in the final stretch and really makes the arc work.

The finale isn't the finest episode of the season -- "Double Booked," "Rough Seas" and "Bad Breaks" are better -- but it's a step up from the last season's impressiveender and it sets up an even more promising future for the show. It's weird to think that I never bothered to wonder about Michael's old enemies, though theshow's fast pace wraps you up in the moment. The idea that we might see ghosts from Michael's past come to Miami looking for revenge is even more enticing than a shadow operation forcing Mike to do assignments for them.

Burn Notice's second season is a marked improvement all-around, one that elevates the show into an indispensable piece of fun rather than a cool show you can drift in and out of. Unlike the last season, it's difficult to pick any weak moments, as the addition of an arc gives each episode a second chance to redeemitself if a plot doesn't work. Now I just need to catch up with the new season on Hulu, and I can experience this wonderful series in real time. I hope waiting a week in between episodes doesn't hurt too much.

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