Burn Notice – season one

cast: Jeffrey Donovan, Bruce Campbell, Gabrielle Anwar, and Sharon Gless

creator: Matt Nix

528 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Christopher Geary

When secret agent Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan, Touching Evil) is blacklisted by US government bureaucracy, he’s dumped in Miami with no money and no easy means of survival, never mind his efforts to go legit as a ‘security consultant’… This is clearly subgenre TV action. Despite its ‘sunshine state’ locale, the series plays out its principled ‘helping desperate people in serious trouble’ and private investigation scenarios in the shadows of Edward Woodward’s dramatic thriller The Equaliser (1985-9), and Michael Madsen’s cleverly amusing Vengeance Unlimited (1998-9), with obvious references to the improvised gadgetry of MacGyver (1985-92), and – especially – to the mixed teamwork of The Protectors (1972-3), albeit without that particular show’s classy European jet-set routines.

Westen is a handsome spy, an ultra savvy trouble-shooter, highly trained, and with astute techno resourcefulness. For a TV hero, he’s scared of personal involvements, but thankful for a few reliable friends, and does a ‘crocodile smile’ very well. British actress, Gabrielle Anwar (Mysterious Island TV remake, Flying Virus, The Guilty), plays Westen’s sometime-girlfriend, Fiona, who’s ex-IRA, and is perhaps the most unlikely looking terrorist. She’s trigger-happy, occasionally crazy, using violence as foreplay to keep her lover on his toes, and constantly guessing. Westen’s best pal is named Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell, Evil Dead trilogy, Bubba Ho-tep), a retired soldier and roguish slacker who revels in a chronic bachelor, short-sleeved Floridian, lifestyle. Westen’s hypochondriac and frequently-manipulative mother, Madeline (Sharon Gless, Cagney & Lacey, Queer As Folk), whose character seems to have undergone a re-think, re-write and makeover after the pilot episode, provides the hero with an unstable and yet relatively normal family background (if compared to the profound deceits visited upon super-spy Sydney Bristow, in Alias, 2001-6), which often risks turning Burn Notice into a spy-game soap-opera, but just avoids mawkishness in favour of adding an emotional roundness to Weston’s character, so that he appears more like a lightweight version of Jack Bauer (also plagued with familial tragedies in TV series 24), than a mysterious cypher like Jason Bourne (overcoming memory and identity loss, in the Bourne trilogy of movies).

There’s much bikini travelogue, and over-exposed pastels, making a vivid contrast to some persuasive espionage tradecraft. Deviousness and technical details benefit from the hero’s explanatory voiceovers. The team’s casebook ranges from crooked cops and con-men to arms dealers and clearing the names of fall guys in racketeer schemes. Problem solving evokes both The A-Team (1983-7) style guerrilla tactics, and the conspiratorial intrigues of Mission: Impossible (1966-73), with on-the-fly creative thinking for escape or confrontation, and emphasis on murky-moral grey areas, plot-wise. With only 11 episodes – including feature-length finale and cliff-hanger Loose Ends – in this first season, Burn Notice does not outstay its welcome, and the reported addition of Tricia Helfer (Cylon ‘number six’ on BSG) to the main cast for season two bodes well for the programme’s cross-genre fandom appeal.

DVD extras: scene-specific commentaries with the series’ creator and main stars, a gag reel, character and action montages, audition tapes, trailer, plus: oddly enough, a cross-promo music-video for Holly Hunter’s first TV show Saving Grace.