The Best Show on TV You’re Probably Not Watching
Thank you, insistent, badgering, relentless readers. It was only because “Burn Notice” had been mentioned so frequently in the comment section that I finally broke down and watched the pilot episode. Two weeks later, I’m not only completely caught up with the series (now in its third season), but I’m hopelessly addicted. There are shows that I love on television right now, and shows that I watch every week, but I honestly haven’t been this completely head-over-heels addicted to a show since “The Wire” ended its run. Granted, “Burn Notice” isn’t in the same league dramatically, and there are better shows on TV (“Breaking Bad,” for instance) but it does have the same junkfood intelligence quota as our dear departed “Veronica Mars.” It’s just plain goddamn fun, never a chore to watch, and I only regret that now that I’ve caught up on it, I can no longer wake up to an episode and fall asleep at the end of the day after another one.
“Burn Notice,” which airs on Thursday nights on the USA Network (after the awful “Royal Pains”) is about Michael Weston (Jeffrey Donovan), a former covert spy who, five minutes into the pilot episode, is mysteriously burned by his government intelligence agency, which is to say: He was fired, removed from the rolls, had his bank accounts frozen, his access blocked, and his ability to work severely curtailed. He was also dropped into his hometown of Miami and not allowed to leave without being tracked down and killed. The show is framed by Weston’s predicament — in each episode, he attempts to find out who burned him in the first place and why while also performing various missions for some of these secret intelligence agencies to not only gain some more information as to why he was burned, but to also avoid their wrath. Somebody wants to keep him alive, but a lot more people —including other spies — want him dead.
And after two seasons and a handful of episodes, Weston still hasn’t gotten very far in his efforts to find the man or organization that’s burned him, but it doesn’t matter that much. The story’s mythology, so to speak, is mostly secondary to the missions of the week. While he’s attempting to gain his old life back, Weston is putting his spy knowledge to good use by helping various down-on-the-luck individuals who have gotten in trouble with nefarious types (there’s a lot of kidnappings, drug and sex trafficking, and blackmail involved) where police involvement would be futile or counterproductive.
Weston has only two people he can trust, who help him both with his clients and with uncovering the mystery behind the burn notice: His on-again off-again girlfriend, Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar), a former IRA operative; and Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell), a semi-retired intelligence operative and full-time beer drinker. Campbell also provides a lot of the show’s comic relief, while Anwar provides some of the show’s sex appeal and the explosives. The other major cast member is Weston’s pushy, busy-body, hypochondriac, chain-smoking mother (Sharon Gless), who attempts to insinuate herself into Weston’s life as whenever possible and provides a nice hideaway for Weston’s clients while they are avoiding kidnappers, mobsters, thieves, scammers, and drug kingpins.
But a simple plot overview doesn’t really do justice to “Burn Notice.” It’s television candy, which is not to say it isn’t smart: Michael Weston is like the perfect combination of Jason Bourne, MacGyver, and Ricky Jay. He can beat the shit out of you; he can con you; and he can steal all the contents off of your cell phone with a coat hanger and a can of Pringles. Writer/Creator Matt Nix not only fashions compelling storylines and writes clever dialogue, but the entire show seems incredibly well researched.
Granted, “Burn Notice” can feel a little formulaic (especially when you’ve watched 30 episodes in 14 days), but it’s a comfortable formula. It’s neither a mystery or a cop show — the culprit is generally identified early on in each episode, and Weston and Co. spend most of the episode attempting not really to outmuscle or kill the main villain, but to con him into defeating himself. It’s remarkably skillful and well plotted, and Nix has been able to attract a lot of guest talent for the villain roles, including John Mahoney (currently the ongoing baddie), Tricia Helfer (last year’s season-long antagonist), Moon Bloodgood, Lucy Lawless, and basically every other recognizable television character actor in between shows.
“Burn Notice” is not without its weaknesses: I want to punch the opening title sequence in the throat; Donovan’s voice-over narration can get occasionally repetitive; Gabrielle Anwar was a little irksome in the beginning (she has since grown on me), and I’m not a huge fan of Sharon Gless. “Burn Notice” is a lighthearted action dramedy, but Gless —as Weston’s mother — frequently injects a little too much light-heartedness without any of the comedic payoff that Campbell provides. I’m also mostly indifferent to the romantic relationship between Weston and Fiona, although it’s tertiary. Moreover, the series’ long mystery about who was responsible for the burn notice has also gotten a little convoluted and incoherent — it works in individual episodes, but it’s hard to make sense of over the course of the series.
Fortunately, despite the show’s title, the burn notice isn’t really the driving force behind it. It’s the smartly-written, action-driven, and often very funny self-contained episodes that you’ll keep returning to. That, and Jeffrey Donovan, who may just be the most unappreciated actor on cable television. If you haven’t seen it, check out the pilot and report back in two weeks (or one, if you don’t have children), once you’ve caught up on the series. I think you’ll agree with its greatness, and you can thank the Pajiba readership for bringing it to your attention.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You can email him or leave a comment below.