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October 23, 2014

'Burn Notice' Creator Matt Nix Talks Game-Changing Season Finale and More

by Maureen Ryan, posted Nov 15th 2011 10:15AM
This week's Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast has a different format: Ryan was out of town, so, on my own, I spoke to 'Burn Notice' creator and executive producer Matt Nix for over an hour. (Don't worry, we'll have a regular podcast, probably with a different special guest, later in the week.)

Forgive me for my enthusiasm, but I really think parts of this podcast could be of interest to wide variety of TV fans, even those who don't necessarily watch the USA Network show.

Toward the end of the podcast, at about the 55-minute mark, I asked Nix to do something writer/creator Shawn Ryan ('The Shield,' 'Terriers') has done in previous Talking TV podcasts: I asked him to talk about his "beefs" with TV or the making of it. That got Nix started on a self-deprecating riff about those who take to the Internet to critique episodic problems that occasionally afflict his show.

He first acknowledged that he frequently gets the credit for whatever goes right on 'Burn Notice,' even the things that accidentally went better than expected. But then, laughing frequently, Nix talked about how about those who think he hasn't noticed 'Burn Notice's' flaws couldn't possibly hate them as much as he does.

"I've watched that episode, like, 10 times," Nix said, hypothetically addressing those Internet commenters or critics. "I hate that [problem] so much more than you an possibly imagine! And by the way, you missed 10 ways that it sucked! ...That's the only thing I've been thinking about for an entire month."

That led to a wider discussion of money and ambition, especially as they relate to the realm of cable TV. So if you don't watch 'Burn Notice,' you might want to listen to the last 25 minutes of the podcast in order to hear Nix's thoughts on those matters. As I've noted in other 'Burn Notice' features, Nix has a mind that is very much like spy Michael Westen's -- he's good at analyzing things and taking them apart in ways that are intelligent and entertainingly droll.

What comes before may be of interest as well, in that Nix talks in depth about how he's tried to keep fresh a show that is now in the home stretch of its fifth season. The key, as Nix says, is to evolve the basic 'Burn Notice' structures and characters while staying true to the show's tone and the soul of its premise. (We also talked about details such as the show's fifth-season finale; there's more on that below as well.)

The show's lead character, Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), is a little like a superhero, in that there are very few challenges he can't meet. As Nix noted, when someone is that powerful and capable, "you've got to pick holes in that."

One of the ways 'Burn Notice' has done that is with recurring adversaries who have reflected some part of Westen's personality or his struggles to be more connected to those around him. As Nix recalled, the ruthless Larry (Tim Matheson) tried to draw out Michael's dark side, and Brennen (Jay Karnes) was as smart and inventive as Michael, thus quite formidable as an opponent. Neither really understood or gave much credence to Michael's better tendencies, though Season 2's Victor (Michael Shanks), who started out as an enemy, ended up as someone whose personal story was very resonant for Michael.

Anson Fullerton, a new and versatile villain very well played by Jere Burns, "is probably the most powerful expression" of the show's tendency to give Michael opponents who reflect the dilemmas Michael faces. As Nix and I discussed, in the years since he unwillingly ended up in Miami, Michael has formed a lot of attachments -- the ex-spy is now close (or as close as he can be) to his girlfriend, Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), his best bud, Sam (Bruce Campbell), his mother, Madeleine (Sharon Gless) and recent friend/Team Westen recruit Jesse (Coby Bell).

But by framing Fi for murders she didn't commit, Anson has put the ex-spy's most precious relationship in danger. 'Burn Notice' wavers whenever a problem isn't personal for Michael, and this dilemma is about as personal as things get. What's worse for Michael (but good for the show) is that, given that Anson knows so much about Michael's psychology and history, Anson always knows Mikey's next move. Naturally, he figures prominently in the next four episodes, which close out 'Burn Notice's' fifth season (it has already been renewed for a sixth).

Having all those personal relationships "come with a cost," and all that will come to a head in the season 5 finale, which is one of his favorite episodes of the show, Nix said, in part because it's different from anything the show has ever done before. It was directed by 'Die Hard 2' helmer Renny Harlin (in his second stint directing the show) and guest stars Kristanna Loken, Eric Roberts and Dean Cain, and, according to Nix, it has dynamics that are unusual for the show.

"Things get very tense in the second half of the season and our villain is very formidable and good at seeing around corners, so there's a lot of scale in the finale -- there's a big cast," Nix said. "It's shot really well, the stakes are incredibly high and the characters pay very, very big prices."

That scale could be seen as the culmination of the expansion of the show's world. As Nix reflected, in the show's early days, we usually saw Fi, Michael and Sam on a mission together, attacking the same problem and coordinating closely with each other. "They might as well have been in each other's heads," Nix said. But these days, 'Burn Notice' has expanded its roster with more characters "who can carry the story forward," which also allows various people to have "have different moral perspectives" on what is happening.

And thing will evolve even more next year, Nix said. In the show's next season, the whole "burned" aspect of the show will be gone for good. "Next year, we get to be officially done with all of that. Anson's not 'pretend' the last one [of the conspiracy that burned Michael], he's the last one," Nix said.

Though things will change for Michael in season 6, Nix said the DNA of the show won't change radically: Michael will always have a big problem to solve or formidable adversary to face off against, and the roots of those big challenges will always matter to him personally. Those building blocks won't change, Nix said.

He said he's toying with the idea of setting more episodes abroad, when it makes sense to do so, but he added that 'Burn Notice' is never going to be a globe-hopping adventure hour. "What the show is about deeply is Michael Westen, the guy" and his evolution from detached espionage operative into a more fully rounded person. It will be largely set in Miami and Michael will still dole out handy spy tips via voiceover.

As Nix said, "We don't want to violate that contract with the audience."

Below are USA's descriptions for the next episodes of 'Burn Notice' (and below that is info on getting this week's Nix podcast):

'Necessary Evil,' Nov. 17: "Michael runs point on a CIA rescue mission involving a scientist kidnapped by an African warlord. Sam and Jesse go undercover as microchip specialists but quickly get in over their heads. Meanwhile, someone close to Madeline is harboring big secrets."

'Depth Perception,' Dec. 1: "Fiona and Jesse head to the Cayman Islands for a financial errand for Anson. Sam has a surprise reunion with Beatriz ('The Fall of Sam Axe'), whose newspaper articles have made her the target of a murderous Russian spy. Michael has to trust Anson's profiling ability to track the Russian before he gets to Sam and Beatriz."

'Acceptable Loss,' Dec. 8: "Jesse recruits the team to help a friend take down his boss, who's using diplomatic immunity to smuggle blood diamonds into the U.S. Michael needs Pearce's help transferring a dangerous prisoner who may have information on Anson." Guest stars include Kristanna Loken, Robert Wisdom and Gregg Henry.

'Fail Safe,' Dec. 15 (season finale): No episode summary is available, but Cain, Roberts and Loken guest star. TV Line has more intel the characters the actors will play.


You can grab the podcast from iTunes (where you can also subscribe) or you can grab this week's discussion from the Talking TV home site.

Full archives of every 'Talking TV' podcast are available here. The entire 'Talking TV' archives are also available on iTunes. Our RSS feed is here.


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ValRea

The chemistry between Michael, FIona, Sam, and Maddie make this show.

November 15 2011 at 3:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
bob

This show reminds me alot of It Takes a Thief , they should get Robert Wagner to play someone like Michaels grandfather .

November 15 2011 at 12:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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