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'Burn Notice' Returns with Pleasures and Frustrations Intact

by Maureen Ryan, posted Nov 11th 2010 10:00AM
A good formula can be a show's salvation. It can also start to seem, after a while, like an albatross.

The flashbacks that 'Lost' employed seemed so clever when the show began. Of course, midway through season 3, they started to grate when they were clearly being used to stall for time. 'Lost' was able to pull out of that slump, though, by changing up the game plan and finding new and different ways to remix and reconfigure its storytelling elements. As the flashes evolved, so did the show.

'Burn Notice,' which returns 10PM ET Thursday on USA, doesn't copy 'Lost's' formula, which a a dozen island experts could never codify even if they wanted to. In any case, 'Burn Notice' is comfortable telling fairly straightforward Robin Hood tales about Michael Westen and his merry little band of justice-dispensers.

Still, as was the case with 'Lost' circa early 2007, a formerly enjoyable central element of the show has begun to feel like a muddled, repetitive afterthought.

'Burn Notice's' ongoing story thread concerns former spy Westen's ongoing attempts to clear his name, and at this point, I can't find it within my heart to care much about any of those burned-spy reindeer games, even though they used to give the show a pleasing boost back in the day. That day feels like a long time ago.

Thanks to the rigidly enforced USA rule that a show's mythology can't be front and center for too long, we've usually gotten the "Who burned Michael" stuff in dribs and drabs over the years. It's all been so piecemeal and lackluster over the last year or so in particular that I'm not even sure who's who and what's what in that realm any more. There's a 'Previously on' segment at the start of Thursday's episode, but it reminds viewers of characters who barely made an impression the first time around.

The problem is, the burned-spy plot has become a labyrinth that doesn't actually have an exit. There's always one more roadblock, one more obstacle, one more task to be checked off a list before Michael's ever-receding redemption can take place. That part of 'Burn Notice' used to give the show higher stakes, but those stakes have drained away the longer it's taken to get to any kind of real payoff -- which seems like it's never coming.

It doesn't add urgency when everyone around Michael can see that he appears to quite like his new life as a freelance problem-solver. Sure, Michael's unrelenting desire to clear his name is a core element of the character, but his new life seems to bring him a certain amount of contentment, if not whatever passes for pleasure in his world. It's beginning to seem like Michael pursues the people who burned him because the show requires him to, not because it still truly matters that much.

Yet it's still quite possible to enjoy an episode of 'Burn Notice,' which, when it clicks in every other arena, can be good fun. When Sam, Michael (Bruce Campbell) and Fi (Gabrielle Anwar) are put through their problem-solving paces in a solid story of the week that features a memorable client and/or villain, there are definitely pleasures to be savored (I'm definitely looking forward to the upcoming episode that features both Jay Karnes and Tim Matheson; Brennen and Larry are the show's most delectable recurring characters). It's usually enjoyable to see Jeffrey Donovan take on a new undercover persona in each episode, and the show's combination of dry humor and meat-and-potatoes action-adventure is often enough to carry the day.

The villain of the week is melodramatic and predictable in Thursday's episode, which also features Jesse, yet another burned spy (one who does not exactly double the pleasure in that department). Still, I can't quite quit 'Burn Notice.' It may not be what it once was, but every season, the show still offers up a some winners. Given how much residual affection I have for this show, that may just about suffice.


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Mary Elizabeth

I, too, have tired of the "Michael trying to clear his name" storyline. I think it takes away from the more contained episodes and, unlike some, I don't care for the addition of Jesse. As a character, not only does he seem rather blah, he seems kind of dim. He couldn't tell Michael was hiding something? While last season (Or the first part of this season? I've gotten lost in all the split seasons.) there was tension between Michael and Fiona over keeping Jesse in the dark, did Jesse really think for even a moment that he had a chance with Fi? As written and portrayed, he just doesn't seem that on the ball. We're told he was a great operative, but unlike Michael, they aren't showing us how he was a great operative. Still, Burn Notice is a ton of fun and does the lighthearted spy storytelling better than others. Undercovers, for example, could have used some pointers.

November 13 2010 at 6:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
YouFaceTheTick

We bailed a few seasons ago for a few reasons:

1. It became clear the show would rarely if ever have Michael go totally bad ass and kill people. Thankfully, at least Dexter still exists.
2. that the spy plot would never be resolved.
3. That nobody in the main cast could die. Snooze. If there's no chance of danger for the main characters, then why watch it? Look at The Wire... Wallace's death still bugs me; Stringer Bell..man, still gives me goose bumps.

Why do people like safe, predictable programming?

November 12 2010 at 12:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Benjy

I don't agree with this article at all.

They told us two years ago who burned Michael... it was Management and his organization. This season has revolved around the issues of whether Michael was going to become a pawn of Management in the vein of the lunatic assassin Simon and Michael's effort to offer Jesse a path back into the game. I predict the long term focus will turn towards Michael's efforts to bring down Management's group for good.

Michael has his yearnings to return to the game, but it's fun to see him soften over time and come around to the little family he's created with Fi, Sam, and Mrs. Westen. These characters have great chemistry. I don't see this as slowing down the show at all.

"Burn Notice" has never missed a beat for me!

November 11 2010 at 2:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

The funny thing is that "who burned Michael?" has never been the most interesting, or fun, thing about this show. It's the sight of Michael -- against every instinct and training -- has unwittingly formed a family. A dysfunctional, one-day-you'll-be-the-death-of-me, crazy as a sack of kittens family but still people he'd lay his life on the line to protect. And if that's not family, what is?`

November 11 2010 at 12:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Scott

I was a fan since the show started, and recommended it to many people. I quit it last season, about 4 shows in. It stopped being fun--it was just grim. And I just didn't care anymore. Plus, I hated the loud, obnoxious music track that ran through most scenes.

November 11 2010 at 12:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Val

Stopped watching during season 2. Same old stuff over and over. Why is everyone so afraid of mythology? Case of the weak is boring.

November 11 2010 at 11:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Val's comment
YouFaceTheTick

@Val - "Case of the weak" - was that on purpose or just a typo? Funny if it was on purpose.

So hate the weekly "Equalizer" rubbish and all the weak "clients" he gets.

November 12 2010 at 12:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Eric

I couldn't agree with Maureen more in this article. The show needs to change something up, otherwise it is going to run itself right into the ground. Mainly, they need to drop Jesse, ASAP. I can't emphasize enough how much I hate his character (and the terrible, TERRIBLE, actor who "plays" him). I don't know who cast that guy, but it is easily one of the biggest fails in TV history.

November 11 2010 at 11:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
SpyTV

Burn Notice is still my second favorite show on TV, but the gap between it and my favorite show is getting wider. I agree with all your points. I've lost track of the who's and why's of Michael's "burn". I still like the chemistry of the cast and the voiceovers, but the set-up for the Robin Hood case of the week is often eye-rolling for me---yet another weepy person describing how only Michael can help. Still, I'll take Burn Notice over the myriad cookie-cutter procedurals on Network TV any day.

On the other hand we have my favorite show Chuck, which now into season 4 has maintained an outstanding balance between larger arcs and procedural elements along with a lighthearted/SciFi/Action comedy tone (another thing I love, it's very difficult to pigeon hole Chuck!). I liked season 3 a great deal (despite what some thought as "pacing" problems), but this season's first 7 episodes have been fantastic. Somehow, so far, the showrunners have avoided pitfalls that plagued another famous spy show called Alias (which took a steep drop in quality around season 3, and only somewhat recovered toward the end). I need to bring up the comparison between Chuck and Burn Notice, since I started watching both around the same time--and picked them both up because of positive critic reviews. I hope Burn Notice finds its footing again for some sort of larger story arc, because I will get bored if it morphs into a "detective agency" case of the week format

November 11 2010 at 11:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Oledad

Burn Notice is awesome. Add the dry humor of Sam and the sometimes passion between Fi and Mike to the side stories and you've got a hit. Jesse is a natural addition to the team and voice overs are the best. We all want to have a little "Spy" in us, don't we?

November 11 2010 at 10:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Scott K.

Um, I thought the 'who burned Michael' part has been solved. I don't have a problem with the set up (and am glad it's progressing) and sometimes really like how that part can add to the stakes. Fun show and great escapism.

November 11 2010 at 10:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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