"You kind of blow your cover when you hit a guy with a piece of rebar..."
Michael Westen really likes yogurt...blueberry, if possible. He sure could use one as this series starts, when the covert intelligence operative gets informed that he's been burned: suddenly fired, dropped like a rock with no more back-up, his name mysteriously hitting the intelligence community blacklist. The news comes at a really inopportune time. "Sometimes the truth hurts," he tells us in voiceover. "In these situations, I recommend lying."
It doesn't work: Within seconds, he's on the ground in the fetal position, getting pummeled by a group of angry--and dangerous--Nigerian criminals. Despite two black belts, Michael admits he's "the champion at getting beaten up." Just another day at the office...but now without an office, the man has a new mission as he hops on a plane back to the States--but he blacks out before he gets there.
Michael (Jeffrey Donovan) gets dumped in Miami--a place he doesn't like ("I've never found a good way to hide a gun in a bathing suit"). He wakes up by ex-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar)--a former IRA member he met on assignment during one of many global missions. Fiona is even tougher than Michael--with guns being her solution to all of life's problems ("Violence is foreplay for you," Michael says. "It's not for me"). She wants to know why she was dumped years ago without a goodbye.
But answers--and emotions--don't come easy for Michael, who has bigger problems: trashed credit, frozen bank accounts, ruined reputation. He needs to find out who burned him, and why--so he sets his sights on getting the Homeland Security Directive that may hold the answers. Michael soon hooks up with buddy Sam (Bruce Campbell), an old-school former agent who now works as a freelancer on small, local cases--and constantly looks for Sugar Mommies. He's one of the outlets helping Michael earn some cash, and each episode gives the team a case to solve--with Michael slowing getting closer to the truth of his bigger problem.
But that's not an easy task, as he quickly discovers that people are out to get him--with his new home (a loft above a Miami nightclub) a frequent target. And when he finds out that Sam is ratting on him to agents--out of fear he'll lose his pension--Michael has one more nuisance to deal with. Complicating things further is Michael's mom Madeline (Sharon Gless), a chain-smoking hypochondriac who wants him back in her life. Seems Michael had a troubled childhood due to an abusive (and now deceased) father. He left home at a young age and never looked back, distancing himself from his family.
It doesn't take long to get a sense of this show's style, which may take a little getting used to--and might be a turnoff for some people: there's constant narration from Michael, who calmly and matter-of-factly imparts his wisdom as the action unfolds, almost like he's our Spy School instructor:
- "In a fight, you have to be careful not to break the little bones in your hand on someone's face..."
- "Figuring out if a car is tailing you is mostly about driving like an idiot..."
- "When breaking in, you want to look like a legitimate visitor until the very last minute. If you can't look legit, confused works almost just as well..."
...and so on. (I imagine some people will find this annoying.) The action freeze-frames a lot, including each time we meet a new character. Despite this being a spy action series, there's a laid-back coolness to it all, with a sly self-awareness that embraces humor. The show is equal parts MacGyver (give Michael some duct tape, and he's good to go), The Rockford Files (replace the Pontiac Firebird with a Dodge Charger), Mission: Impossible (plenty of explosions and narrow escapes) and The (disgruntled) Mod Squad (imagine if Pete, Julie and Linc bickered a lot).
The cast is outstanding: Donovan is equal parts smooth and smug, smart and silly, sexy and selfish. You might criticize his portrayal as being too detached and unemotional, but I'm betting that's exactly what an agent of his caliber is like. (He's got some heart...if he steals your car on a work day, he'll totally get it back to you by 5). Michael is an asshole superhero, but when he flashes that big ol' smile or quips "Does that come in men's?" to a fashion victim douchebag, you can't help but love him. He adopts awful accents like American Dad's Roger wears weak wigs, and you'll eat it up. (Jeffrey, I now officially forgive you for Blair Witch 2).
Anwar (who I've loved ever since Body Snatchers) is the toughest chick on TV, and it's a real treat when she gets to play the flirty version of Fi, snaring in her prey before turning the tables ("Believe me, Michael...if there's one thing I know how to do, it's to get a guy to leave a bar"). She provides the perfect yang to Michael's yin, and the two have a fiery chemistry together--it's fun to see the them try and one-up each other as both actors and characters. But it's even more fun to watch Anwar spar with the groovy Campbell ("A free drink is a free drink, baby!"). You see, Fi and Sam hate each other, and that gives Anwar and Campbell plenty of opportunity to hurl insults ("You think I could convince your Czech assassin to switch targets?" asks Fi of Michael. "Sam is bigger, slower...easier to hit").
Campbell plays a slightly subdued version of his popular persona, and doesn't have as much stand-out dialogue or scenes...he's a quiet presence that makes you smile every once in a while. (Note to the producers: Why tease us with TV vamp Audrey Landers in three episodes but give her virtually no lines?! Bring her back and let her and Campbell have some fun...they could be hilarious together if you let them!)
Gless is slightly underused (she isn't even in a few episodes!), which is a shame because her scenes shine--whether she's pushing Michael's buttons or begging him to open up. She's the perfect mix of tough and tender, and when Gless is thrown a tear-jerking challenge, she hits a homerun. Like no one else in the cast, she injects much-needed compassion into the show--Gless is the emotional heart of the series. And I really hope we get to see a lot more of Michael's brother Nate in Season 2...Seth Peterson is too entertaining to waste, and could really spice this cast up even more (I also wouldn't mind a little more of China Chow's Lucy...and watch for a great turn by Lucy Lawless in one of my favorite episodes).
You have to suspend your disbelief a lot with this series--it's a stretch to think that Michael can talk his way into (and out of) all of these crazy situations, and at some point you'd think people around town would catch on. You also start to feel bad for his friends and family, who he constantly (and selfishly) puts in danger. But those issues are easily forgivable, as this series is simply a fun, colorful ride. You really start to root for the three amigos, and creator/writer Matt Nix perfectly blends action, intrigue, romance and humor. Burn Notice is a great escape...hop on and enjoy the ride.
The 11 Season 1 episodes from the USA Network show are presented on 4 discs; all run the standard 40+ minutes except the pilot (66 minutes) and the double-length season finale (83 minutes). Season 2 is scheduled to premiere in July of 2008.
1. Pilot (aired 6/28/07) A spy kicked out of the agency is stuck in Miami, where he helps locals who can't rely on the police. Michael Westen finds himself cut off from his contacts and his cash, so he agrees to help a man clear his name in a high-priced art theft. Along the way he gets help from his ex-girlfriend and a retired agent, and grief from his mother, who is unaware of his career. Audio commentary on 9 scenes.
2. Identity (aired 7/5/07) Michael agrees to help Madeline's friend recover money from a scammer in exchange for information about a listening device planted in his mother's house. Audio commentary on 7 scenes.
3. Fight or Flight (aired 7/12/07) A woman who witnessed a brutal beating receives threats from the drug dealer who carried out the crime. Michael tries to get her out of Miami to safety, but the woman's teenage daughter refuses to leave the city, forcing him to try a risky plan to alienate the dealer from his cartel. Audio commentary on 4 scenes.
4. Old Friends (aired 7-19-07) Michael helps a friend's daughter escape a prostitution ring while protecting himself from assassination attempts. Audio commentary on 5 scenes.
5. Family Business (aired 7/26/07) A family of gunrunners threatens an airport supervisor, so Michael infiltrates their organization in an attempt to scare them away. Elsewhere, Sam is pressured by the FBI to gather more info on Michael. Audio commentary on 3 scenes.
6. Unpaid Debts (aired 8/2/07) Michael is hired to take a boat from Jamaican gangsters and discovers $10 million stashed onboard. Elsewhere, a CSS agent tries to make Michael back off his investigation into the burn notice. Audio commentary on 4 scenes.
7. Broken Rules (aired 8/9/07) Michael poses as a thief to infiltrate a criminal gang that has been terrorizing a local merchant. Elsewhere, Michael blackmails an agent into handing over information about the burn notice. Audio commentary on 5 scenes.
8. Wanted Man (aired 8/16/07) Fiona hunts down an alleged jewel thief she believes is innocent. So Michael investigates to find the real culprit. Elsewhere, Michael plots against the man who had him fired. Audio commentary on 4 scenes.
9. Hard Bargain (aired 8/23/07) A house sitter for a millionaire is living the high life until his fiancée is kidnapped and held for a hefty ransom. Meanwhile, a bureaucrat offers Michael information on how to clear the burn notice. Audio commentary on 4 scenes.
10. False Flag (aired 9/13/07) Michael becomes emotionally vested in a case involving a woman trying to track down her son. Elsewhere, Michael learns the man behind the burn notice intends to visit him in Miami. Audio commentary on 6 scenes.
11. Loose Ends Parts 1 & 2 (aired 9/20/07) Sam is held hostage by heroin smugglers who also happen to be former Special Forces operatives. Michael must use his underworld connections to rescue his friend as he tries to dodge agents out to get him. Audio commentary on 12 scenes.
All 11 episodes are presented in an anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen format. This is a very colorful series, taking advantage of eye-catching Miami settings and fashion. I never watched the show when it originally aired, and I'm guessing what we see here is how it looked on TV. In many shots, you'll notice a lot of grain, and not much sharpness or detail--the image is frequently soft. I'm guessing the series intentionally goes for that hazy, rough look--so while I think there probably isn't any transfer problem, this isn't an image that will blow you away.
A 5.1 surround mix (with optional English, Spanish and French subtitles) does a pretty good job of adding a little jolt to the action, mostly in the front. The score makes more rear-speaker appearances--the gunfire and explosions don't knock your socks off, but this is a TV show, so I'm okay with that...the dialogue is always clear.
The only extra with real substance is the 63 scene-specific audio commentaries with creator Matt Nix and the four main cast members: Donovan, Anwar, Campbell and Gless. (See the Episode Guide above for the number of commentary scenes in each episode.) I'm not usually a fan of commentaries, but these are a great listen--I actually was excited to flip through them. The scene-specific option is far better than full tracks--it really forces the participants to focus, and it makes it easy for the viewer to enjoy. You may sometimes confuse the voices of Nix and Donovan, who talks the most and references virtually every scene as his favorite; Campbell chimes in a lot, while Anwar and Gless need a little coaxing...but all of them will make you laugh. They're all having fun, and it's clear that there's a natural camaraderie among them.
Some highlights include Donovan recalling what Anwar told him in a phone call immediately after the pilot aired ("I'm really proud to be on this show...I didn't know it was supposed to be funny!"), and later laughing at himself when he says "That was one of the things that Matt and I worked really hard on...I said hard-on..." He also shares his apprehension at having to yell at Gless, who has some cute stories up her sleeve ("My husband said, 'How happy are you?! They're paying you to smoke!'"). Campbell bemoans the frequent freeze-frames that capture his face in dumb expressions, and talks about his overactive glands: "I had to learn sweat management on this show...on a standard day I would sweat through about four or five undershirts." Anwar cops to loving her make-out scenes with Donovan ("Are you kidding me?! I love making out with gorgeous men on television...") and notes that she's "having a blast" being a heavy physical threat for the first time in her career, as Fi is the biggest pain perpetrator.
Nix also shares his amazement at landing his two big-name supporting players, recalling how he finally caved at the suggestion he contact Gless and Campbell: "I said, 'There's no way they're going to do it! Fine, just offer them the part, they will say no, and then we can get down to the serious business of casting this pilot. Why are you wasting my time?!' I was kind of floored. I really didn't expect to get people whose names I knew so well and who I admired so much."
Donovan later provides one of the most interesting comments, trying to explain how the actors develop such a solid dynamic: "You get a sense of their instincts, and then you act accordingly to oppose them, and that creates a kind of funny effect," he says (prompting a "You suck!" from Anwar). "If you make it harder for your fellow actor to get what they want, then it can only make conflict in the scene higher, and that's what I try to do in every scene. That's why everyone thinks I suck." Everything else here is pretty lame: the gag real (3:05) isn't funny, and mostly shows Campbell improvising; the Character Montage (1:24) is a pointless collection of clips with everyone's name being said repeatedly; and Girls Gone Burn Notice (2:14) is a montage of boobs, butts and bathing suits from the Miami extras. You also get audition footage (9:47), with Donovan and Anwar reading a few scenes each. An Everlast music video for the DVD release of the show Saving Grace rounds out the package. Nix made a few references to deleted footage, so it would have been nice to see that, and I'm stunned there isn't at least a short behind-the-scenes or "making of" feature.
I don't consider myself an action junkie, but it's hard to resist the charm of this addicting, self-aware spy series packed with smart asses. Led by a potent cast and writing that's both hip and humorous, it's a slick blast from start to finish. Suspend your disbelief and surrender to the fun. Highly Recommended.