This month we’re mixing it up at the Gutter with each editor writing
about something outside their usual domain. This week James Schellenberg
writes about tv.
I’m a demanding SOB: I want to be entertained. I want shallow, repetitive, and sheer fun, but I also want a little depth, moments of substance, some flair or style, something that lasts. I want it all, but most basically, I always want that kernel of great storytelling. Easy to demand, difficult to deliver!
That’s why I like Burn Notice. It’s the cheesy, unpretentious show that delivers the goods again and again.
Burn Notice is about a spy named Michael Westen – like usual with these types of characters, he’s the best at what he does. But then he gets a burn notice: he’s out of the spy life, dumped in Miami with no discernible work history, and a lot of enemies. Who burned him? And what can he do to support himself in the mean time with his spy skills? The answer to the second question is the rationale for most of the week-to-week storylines – he can help people who get in trouble. Like getting back the life savings of a little old lady who has been scammed. Miami is filled with criminals and Michael is on the side of the underdog, usually for a embarrassingly small fee.
The life of a spy makes a great show, but the show makes it clear that Michael’s life kinda sucks. As an example, I’ll quote the first thing you hear Michael say in the show. In the history of great opening lines, this one’s a doozy:
Covert intelligence involves a lot of waiting around.
Know what it’s like being a spy? Like sitting in your dentist’s
reception area twenty-four hours a day. You read magazines, sip coffee,
and every so often, someone tries to kill you.
Who can Michael trust? Almost no-one (and apparently not his dentist!). He gets constantly beat up, shot at, betrayed, spied on by the government, and generally mistreated. The show walks a fine line between the entertaining value of seeing someone defy death, and showing the physical and psychological cost of that experience.
In every Burn Notice episode, there are two pieces. Who is Michael helping this week? It could be a rich family who is targeted by determined kidnappers, it could be a healthcare clinic for poor folks losing its medical supplies to gangsters. Michael doesn’t like guns and instead prefers the hardware store, some home-made gadgets, and an application of cunning and wit – it comes across as the best bits of Alias and MacGyver thrown into a blender and made even more entertaining.
The other piece is the overall storyline of Michael’s burn notice. The genius of Burn Notice is
that it’s an easy show to jump into at any point, at the same time as
it is carefully constructed one level up, at the level of the ongoing story.
Granted, the burn
notice storylines aren’t always as entertaining as the crimes of the
week. But I have new respect for the overarching narrative because the writers have handled it so adroitly. The finale of season two in particular
solves a lot of problems at the same as it retains the feeling of the
show. Yes, we get answers. Yes, those answers make sense. Yes, the burn notice itself is resolved, but that’s not a spoiler apart from the fact it’s surprising the show-runners managed to pull this off and still keep the show going. I’m keen to see what happens next.
It’s an interesting point in time to look at trends in serialized TV. Now that Battlestar Galactica is over, we can say with some certitude that BSG‘s heavily serialized
storyline, in the absence of any plan, is a recipe for disaster. A counter-example is Lost, which stumbled badly, but has found its feet again – at the cost of a huge investment in time. Good luck to anybody trying to start on the show anywhere in its current 5th season.
I think the show that Burn Notice most closely
resembles in the sci-fi world is Stargate SG-1 (and not just because Michael Shanks had a great run as an important character in the second half of season two of Burn Notice). SG-1 had a
simple-to-understand premise: here’s a stargate that can take humans
anywhere in the universe, a universe which turns out to be a dangerous
place. Our heroic team of adventurers protect earth from those dangers
and go out and have heroic adventures. Similarly, Burn Notice is pretty easy to pick up.
SG-1, however, Burn Notice has its key storyline baked right into its
title. The stargate is the setting for SG-1, while the life of a spy is the
setting for Burn Notice. Michael Westen has had a very specific thing
happen to him – he’s been burned – and the show rightly revolves around
his efforts to cope with that fact. But the writers keep it very light on the big story, making sure they get those elements right, and then provide lots of great moments at the week-to-week level. It’s a winning formula.
Of course, one of the other
pleasures of Burn Notice is long-time genre favourite, Bruce Campbell,
and his knock-out-of-the-park portrayal of Michael’s sidekick, Sam Axe.
Apparently, the man with the chin can play non-genre material pretty