Created by American screenwriter Matt Nix and broadcasted by USA Network, Burn Notice was a TV series with seven seasons running from June 2007 to September 2013. It followed the story of Michael Westen, a CIA agent played by Jeremy Donovan who is “burned” from the secret service in the middle of a mission in Nigeria. Miraculously surviving, he is dumped on his hometown Miami and under strict FBI surveillance. Out of a job, he spends his days helping people with problems like blackmail, kidnappings or robberies at the same time he follows the few leads on the organization that burned him.
Westen is assisted by his ex-girlfriend, former IRA operative Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar) and his old friend Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell), a former Navy SEAL member whose “origins” story was told in the 2011 TV film The Fall of Sam Axe. At the same time, Michael has to deal with his mother Madeleine (Sharon Gless) and his brother Nate (Seth Peterson), both at first strangers to his suspicious activities and job but later informally introduced to the spy business when a few things go awry. From season four onwards, Jesse Porter (Coby Bell), another CIA burned agent, also joins the team.
I came across Burn Notice back in 2007, yet I was unable to see all the episodes properly until very recently, where I watched all seasons in about a month. My memories on spotting it on TV were good enough to think the series deserved a full watch and I wasn’t disappointed at all now that I could finally go through it.
Burn Notice is highly attractive, innovative, funny and addictive during the first five seasons, with the latter two being so gritty and dramatic that at parts it looks like a different series. I’m not saying the six and seven seasons are bad, but there are quite a few things that make it repetitive, unnecessarily extended and the character of Michael Westen feels closer to an out-of-control disgraced operative, more akin to Jason Bourne than the sort of mix between Ethan Hunt and Simon Templar he was during the first seasons. Without getting into spoilers, there’s a nice nod in the very last chapter to the dialogues we hear in the introduction of every episode.
What I found fascinating was the leading character and the fact he uses spy and special ops techniques to be one step above the petty thieves, kidnappers or drug dealers threatening his clients or relatives. Most of the techniques have Westen getting the trust of his enemy, befriending him and then beating him in his own game – ending in their arrest or their death due to the given misdirection.
Jeffrey Donovan is a fantastic actor and it’s easy to sympathize with his character. Michael Westen isn’t as striking or stylish as James Bond or as determined as Ethan Hunt. His activity, tough, involves techniques used by many cinematic spies like the improvisation of guns and the impersonation of people from different nationalities, where Michael has to adopt the accent of a foreigner in the same way Val Kilmer did in the 1997 film adaptation of The Saint. This and the fact that he has a family (unlike Bond, Hunt, and Templar) generates a connection between the audience and the leading character, as well as his narration of different spy techniques throughout the episodes which felt to me as if he was giving us some basic lessons on how to be a spy. Top marks go to the research for these tidbits in every episode, which was very detailed.
The supporting cast is also very good, particularly the characters of Fiona and Sam and the incredible dynamic the trio have on the job in hand, dealing with last minute changes and having to improvise quickly to achieve their goals. This dynamic is sadly broken when Jesse Porter joins them, as the four tend to usually separate into two groups of two people, each of them handling either the “burn notice” business or solving the current client trouble. Sharon Gless also gives an effective performance as a chain-smoking mother who reprimands her son for “disappearing” plus other typical mother-and-son clichés which work very nicely at first give us the impression that even spies have domestic problems as everyone else.
While primarily set in Miami, later seasons move the actions to Washington and Central America, and the action scenes become more overdeveloped in the sense of a cinematic blockbuster: most of the sixth season has the team with a capture or kill warrant by the government, which detaches the story from the usual humoristic cloak-and-dagger techniques to more of a pure action production with recurring car chases and shootouts. Still, the series manages to attract and be completely addictive, and the 40 minutes of each episode flow in a very appealing way.
Despite the overloaded drama from the last two seasons, which is kind of a setback in comparison to the first ones, Burn Notice deserves a watch if you are a fan of the spy genre and enjoy a pinch of humor. The production makes great use of the usual secret agent clichés and while being very modern in terms of style and scripting they also have a room for escapism and entertainment from the old film and TV productions.