Easy, breezy, sexy Miami makes the perfect setting for Burn Notice, a show about hot, wisecracking ex-government agents trying to undo their forced retirements. The show is an instantly forgettable hour of anonymous entertainment, as superficial as the city’s clubbing scene. Each episode restates its premise, several times over, which makes it commitment-free television—the anti-Lost. Such low-stakes diversions are creator Matt Nix’s forte. After three seasons, Burn Notice has, like its characters, perfected its swagger: It uses tacky and often cheesy narrative devices to achieve an effect that, if nothing else, at least looks good.
Sometimes—especially in the spy game—appearances are everything, especially in a show where the plot is so thinly defined. All we really know about our hero, Michael Westen, is that he used to be a spy before the shadowy Management “burned” him, so all actor Jeffrey Donovan does is broadly play the clichéd spy: He swaggers through every scene, regardless of whether it’s with a family member, street tough, or covert assassin. He also jury-rigs devices on the fly, MacGuyver-style, all while his glib first-person narration breaks it down for the audience. Likewise, his cohort, Fiona, isn’t much more than a gun-crazy former flame, so Gabrielle Anwar simply walks around in sexy outfits with big guns (and the key demographics go wild!). At least Bruce Campbell, who plays a salty ex-SEAL named Sam Axe, is in familiar territory: As a B-movie star, he’s just hammy enough to pull off the snarky lothario type. As for Sharon Gless, she’s wasted as Michael’s sharp-witted, chain-smoking mother; she’s there to wring her hands and give Michael a “human” side—a rarity for a show that usually despises any hint of emotion.
Those looking for subtlety should change the channel. In the season premiere, “Friends and Enemies,” Michael finds himself sitting in the backseat of Sam’s car, holding a Mac-10. With a straight face, he points out the obvious: “Guys, guys, I have a loaded machine pistol in my hands and I have no idea what I’m doing.” In the next episode, “Fast Friends,” Sam warns Mike that their new client is not a team player—just as he marches into a mansion, guns blazing. The third episode of the season, “Made Man,” deals with a mobster named Tony, but that’s where the similarities to The Sopranos end: Tony is just a run-of-the-mill mobster psychopath, accent and all. As Sam puts it: “I am now officially the closest friend of a total psychopath. This is great. This is just great.”
Thankfully, the show’s formulaic “case-of-the-week” structure, which is bookended by scenes that develop the season’s arc, has been broken up by a new recruit. In Michael’s relentless, nonsensical quest to become a spy again, he has joined forces with bad guys, and now he’s gone too far. His attempts to dig up classified information for Management have resulted in another spy getting burned and Michael finds himself working with angry, lone-wolf counter-intelligence expert Jesse (Coby Bell)—at least, so long as he can keep Jesse from figuring out who actually burned him. Save for a cliffhanger episode or two, Michael has never really had to deal with the consequences of his actions, and it’ll be interesting to see how he copes with having Jesse right beside him, day after day—especially since the fiery Fiona is attracted to the bad-boy type. Jesse is also lodging with Michael’s mother, so now there’s the question of who can be the better son figure too.
These new dynamics help Burn Notice deal with its biggest flaw: lazy writing. USA Network says that it puts characters first, but it really means it’s all about attitude. How else to explain the one-line backstories of colorful yet shallow people like Adrian Monk (OCD detective who lost his wife), Nikita (an innocent victim turned into a hardened assassin), or White Collar‘s Neal (a captured con-man who now works for the F.B.I.)? Nothing ever really changes for these “characters”—even their weekly cases tend to be variations or derivations of the same old story. This is great for syndication, but it makes for less than compelling first-run TV: Michael infiltrates a gang, Fiona shoots a gun, and Sam provides backup. The eye-candy—designer suits and string-bikinis—was distracting at first, but now it’s as garish as a spray-on tan. On the other hand, a rebelliously erratic new character is already shaking things up for the better.
This is what Burn Notice needs to do more of. Until now, every season has simply hit the reset button and shifted conspiracies. There’s nothing wrong with a show that just wants to comfortably bask in the Miami sun—so long as it rolls over and shows some fresh skin every once in a while.