Full disclosure: My brother is one the full-time editors on “Burn Notice,” which is how my wife and I found and fell in love with the show.
“Burn Notice” stars Jeffrey Donovan as Michael Westen, a former CIA operative who was inexplicably and unfairly rendered toxic within the agency (or burned) and now makes a living in the city of Miami as a private investigator/freelance spy. His partners in intrigue are Fiona or Fi (Gabrielle Anwar), his on and off girlfriend and a trigger-happy ex-IRA operative; and Sam (Bruce Campbell), a former Navy SEAL, a shell of his former self, but loyal and about as resourceful as they come.
Jesse Porter (Coby Bell), an ex-CIA agent with a burning grudge against Michael, joined the team in season four, and Michael’s hard-bitten but soft-hearted mother, Madeline (Sharon Gless) has been bringing warmth and humor in her supporting role since day one.
Though I’m personally not thrilled with the addition of Jesse (but am finally used to him) this is an action-adventure show that sails on the chemistry of its cast, especially Campbell, whose sloppy charm and street smarts are always the show’s highlights. As is the formula that allows Michael to voice-over the why’s and how’s of spy-work once the episode’s main plot has kicked into gear. For example:
Figuring out if a car is tailing you is mostly about driving like you’re an idiot. You speed up, slow down, signal one way, turn the other. Of course, ideally, you’re doing this without your mother in the car… Actually, losing a tail isn’t about driving fast. A high-speed pursuit is just gonna land you on the six o’clock news. So you just keep driving like an idiot until the other guy makes a mistake. Again, all this is easier without a passenger yelling at you for missing a decades worth of Thanksgivings.
And as that makes clear, other than the villains or the mark, the juggling of spy-craft and personal relationships is also what complicates many a plot.
Thanks to sharp writing and a terrific overall style and feel (the show is shot on-location in Miami), the individual episodes make for some of the best escapism on television right now. And as is the case with the best series being produced today, there’s an over-arching story that connects the episodes and seasons. Much of what drives Michael and therefore the series, is his relentless quest to track down the person who burned him and to get his name and reputation back.
By the time you watch season five, you’ll discover that much of this has been resolved, or at least turned into a different problem as there are still complications and inconsistencies in that resolution. And, of course, there’s also the ongoing relationship between Michael and Fiona — which is also somewhat resolved and unlike most shows, managed to achieve this without killing the chemistry.
What I most appreciate about the show, though, is how openly patriotic it is. Fiona’s a bit of a cynic and in a previous season mocked Michael and accused him of being simplistic, all about patriotism and serving his country. In response, Michael proudly owns up to all of it. Our protagonist loves, believes in, and wants to serve his country — and much of what motivates him to clear his name is his desire to get back into the business of protecting America.
The American military is also treated with the respect it deserves.
Though in its fifth season (season six premiered on USA a couple of days ago), “Burn Notice” no longer feels fresh, but it sure feels comfortable. These are characters you love spending time with and enjoy seeing get in and out of jams. The writing is smart, the plots are smart, and after five years, the characters feel like part of the family.
That’s what great shows achieve after a few years, and this is a pretty great show. It’s also — no joke — brilliantly edited. If you’ve seen the show, you know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t, you will.
Though there’s absolutely nothing political or divisive about “Burn Notice,” conservatives starved for something different and more in line with who we are should thank the Almighty for series creator Matt Nix, a legitimate talent using that talent to deliver intelligent, addicting escapism that recognizes the best in our country and those who selflessly serve it.
Burn Notice: The Complete Fifth Season (2011) is available for purchase at the link.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC