Friday, September 20, 2013

Burn Notice Post Mortem

Movies are king
Television is furniture.

Yes, I know there have been some choice, even stellar TV series over the years.  But for me, even the greatest TV moment can't match a film when that unexplainable magic is there.

But over the past few years, shows like Mad Men have broken the boundaries and created great drama, a sharp contrast to a lot of offerings at the multiplex.  Breaking Bad, finishing up its final season, is another good example.

Also ceasing production is USA Network's Burn Notice, which completed a seven series run a week ago. It may not earn a spot in the distinguished company of those other shows. Hell, it wouldn't even make such a claim.  It's the very definition of a guilty pleasure, a wildly entertaining, sometimes exhilarating adventure that took itself fairly seriously but always lent a wink to let you know that while some bad things may happen (even to the principal players), everything would ultimately be OK. As cast member Bruce Campbell (who plays Chuck Finley, er, Sam Axe) puts it, "It's the meatloaf effect.  It's a nice, comfortable meal that makes you feel good." Well said.

Creator Matt Nix concocted the story of an ace CIA agent named Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) who in the midst of a job in South America is "burned". Blacklisted. Meaning, disavowed from the Agency. Left to spin in the wind.  As every episode's opening narration states (read by Donovan/Westen), " cash, no credit.  You're left in whatever city they decide to dump you in..." In this case, Miami, his hometown, and a perfect backdrop for all of the mayhem to play out. Another piece where the locale is a character itself.

Also, far from my favorite city.  I could torture you with a detailed missive as to why I despise the place, what I consider a confused, wannabe metropolis, but for now let's just explain why  its so perfect for Burn Notice. The very banality of its tropical culture, from the gaudy mansions to the sleaziest back-alleys, were vital and perfect for its storyline. And this was not some shot-in-Southern California fakery (those extra tall palms and mountains in the background always give it away). BN is shot street level all over Miami, with a base in Coconut Grove/Coral Gables. Of interest to me as I am there monthly to visit my father-in-law.

Westen is reunited with his ex-girlfriend, a trigger-happy former IRA member named Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), friend/ex-Navy SEAL Sam Axe, and even his mother (Sharon Gless, who had an Emmy nom one season), who gave the show much dramatic weight and plenty of guilt tripping. In the fourth season, another burned spy named Jesse (Coby Bell) joined the cast, rounding out the team as each week they used their considerable skills (and lots of duct tape) to help someone in need, at the mercy of sheisters and kingpins. It was somewhat of a cross between The A-Team and MacGyver, but with more deaths.. Arcing through the series was Michael's desperate efforts to find out who burned him, and why.

It was a long, dangerous, and sometimes ponderous journey.   Along the way, a parade of former comrades and enemies turn up. Guest star turns by the likes of Tim Matheson, John Mahoney, Patton Oswalt, and even Burt Reynolds. The team itself had backstory: On again/off again lovers Michael and Fiona met in Ireland a decade earlier when she was working for the IRA, while Sam was the career Navy SEAL who eventually spied on Westen for the FBI.  Sam even had his own BN spin-off prequel movie, still unseen by me.  Jesse was also a spy who was accidentally burned by Michael and when he learned the truth, became a temporary antagonist. But the quartet always settled their differences and worked together.

I wish the series had ended at the close of season 4. It was one of the most perfect finales ever, filled with the highest caliber action and drama of the series run. It concluded with Westen being whisked back to Washington D.C. Would he get his old job back? But then the next season did not pick up exactly where the previous had left off and missed a chance for some interesting Agency dynamics.  The whole re-adjustment period  Westen likely experienced. Instead, the series jumped to 6 months later. USA did feature a comic based on the time gap on their website.

Season 7 tuned considerably darker as the client-of-the-week format (and generally light tone) was dropped to focus on Westen's efforts to infiltrate a group of vigilantes who were described by the CIA as terrorists. Michael learns otherwise, perhaps seeing a group led by the enigmatic James (John Pyper-Ferguson) as a similar version of himself, albeit with more ruthless methods. Westen has no choice in his mission, as failure would result in his and his friends'  life imprisonment in a CIA holding facility due to some past "indiscretions" during Season 6 that are too complicated to discuss here.

The series finale was quite satisfying, and I won't entirely spoil it for those who haven't watched. Nix wrote and directed an episode that tied up all possible loose ends, leading to a happy final scene that fans were praying for during a long, somber season. But, there was one very tragic death among the principal players, very well played.

But my favorite thing? The very last scene explains why Westen was providing narration the entire series run, and to whom. Why he spent each and every episode in voiceover discussing the methodology and psychology of spy work (one of the most intriguing aspects of the show, IMO). I always wondered if the device wasn't just some 3rd person omniscient POV or if he was indeed recounting a story to someone.

It turns out to be the latter. As Nix and his writers were formulating the final season, this idea came to him, as if it was always there and he just figured it out. It's like Gabriel Byrne's character in COOL WORLD: an animator who thought he created an entire universe and finds that it had always existed. If you've seen BN's finale, tell me it isn't a brilliant touch. It will be fun to go back and re-watch, with a new dimension added that will only make the series even better. 
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