Burn Notice: Season Two
Fox // Unrated // $59.99 // June 16, 2009
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 28, 2009
Highly Recommended
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Graphical Version
When a spy goes off the reservation, the feds don't fork over a pink slip: nope, a burn notice is issued. That makes him persona non grata in the intelligence community, and whatever intel that operative had dug up over the years is torched. A spy who's been compromised doesn't exactly get to keep an expense account and a company car: he loses his passport, transportation, bank account, work history... Forget the Secretary disavowing any knowledge of your actions; if you're burned, you don't exist.

Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) is still reeling from being burned, but if you have to have your life stripped down to bare metal, there are worse places to be trapped than Miami. I mean, he has family there, though I don't know how much of a selling point a chain-smoking nag of a mother like Madeline (Sharon Gless) might look on the brochure. He's got his buddy Sam (Bruce Campbell!), a womanizing, mojito-swilling, retired Navy SEAL who has friends in high places...and low places and damn near everywhere in between. Mikey even has his kinda-sorta-ex-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) on speed dial 'cause an ass-kicking arms smuggler who used to pal around with the IRA -- and happens to be a stone-cold fox -- can come in pretty handy. Guy's gotta earn a living, and since Michael doesn't officially exist but has to keep his fridge stocked with yogurt somehow, he puts his talents in espionage to use by freelancing.

Michael's hellbent on getting his life back, though, and he inched one step closer to that last season when he rolled Sam's Caddy into the back of a tractor trailer. When the door to that oversized truck opens in the season premiere, Michael's not staring into the eyes of some badnik from the shadowy organization that had him burned. No, he's blackmailed into playing errand boy for "Carla" (Tricia Helfer), who, at least at the outset, is just a disembodied voice on the phone sultrily giving Michael his marching orders. If he doesn't play nice, everyone and everything Michael cares about will be facedown in a pool of the red stuff. If he does...well, he runs the risk of making everything in that trumped-up dossier behind his burn notice true, but it also gives Michael a chance to pull down the curtain and find out who it is exactly that's been pulling the strings.

Burn Notice isn't a whodunnit, though: not with the overarching storyline about why Michael was burned or in the helping-the-helpless cases he takes on week in and week out. Hell, the bad guy's usually spelled out five or ten minutes in. No, it's not a whodunnit so much as a howtogethim. Michael's not the type to whip out a pistol and gun down a badnik...otherwise the show'd clock in at six minutes every week. 'Sides, someone else would just kick that body aside and step into his place. Michael dismantles their operations by getting close to the bad guys...sometimes by befriending them and earning their trust, and other times posing as the competition muscling them out of town. It's a lot more interesting than a flatfoot chasing down leads in just another stock procedural, and Burn Notice makes it even more compelling by bringing Michael's background as a spy into the fray. Okay, sometimes Michael's pitted against double-digit IQ thugs armed to the teeth, but he's usually squaring off against enemies who are devious, calculating, and enormously well-funded. He and his team don't have some bottomless black ops budget to dip into anymore, so Michael has to play the spy game on a shoestring, and he has the wits and the training to pull it off. Want to fend off a half-battalion of gunslingers mounting a siege on your mom's house? Grab some Christmas lights, shotgun shells, and non-dairy creamer. Overmusculed thug staring you down? Thermite in a coffee can will go through his GTO's engine block like shit through a goose. The explanations of what he's doing, exactly, aren't belted out in clunky, expository dialogue but through sharp, clever narration. Think "Hints from Heloise", only with tips about bulletproofing an SUV on a budget or building a homebrew X-ray rig in your trunk. The show never leans on the voiceover work as a lazy crutch. It heightens the show, really, from Michael explaining why he's using a very particular fighting technique to convince a prisoner he's Russian to the overwhelming skill it takes for a marksman to shoot from a speeding car and deliberately and convincingly miss.

It's also a blast watching Michael worm his way into the criminal underworld every week, especially when he breaks out an over-the-top accent to help sell the scheme. Even better is when the bad guys aren't buying it. This season sees Michael square off against several astonishingly savvy and suspicious bad guys, one of whom -- Brennen (Jay Karnes) from "Sins of Omission", who'd return for season three -- looks to be more clever than he is, period. It's not the first time we see Michael face-to-face with someone so cool, collected, and brilliant this season either. In one episode, he plays a sort of chess game with an unflappable Pakistani (Assaf Cohen), trying in vain to blackmail him into digging up information on Carla, and one recurring character is a burned spy who's kind of a frothing-at-the-mouth "Mirror, Mirror" version of Michael. It's not all chest-thumping and designer sunglasses, though; if he has to doll himself up as a squeaky-voiced, aesthmatic chemist to infiltrate a group of pirates...well, them's the breaks. As strong as just about every last element of Burn Notice is, this really is Jeffrey Donovan's show. Charming, witty, enough of a force that he can take down a couple of armed thugs with an issue of "Cat Fancy", and packing the chops to sell a really powerful speech while posing as a lush who's found The Lord, I really can't picture anyone but Donovan taking the reins as Michael. This season does see him going doing a darker path, and he doesn't react well when he finds out just how little control over his situation he really has.

One of Burn Notice's greatest strengths is the way its cast interacts with one another. They aren't saddled with bland archetypes being shoved around the plot-of-the-week but sharply written, brilliantly cast, and well-realized characters. Fiona's "breakup" with Michael in the season premiere livens up their dynamic now that she's no longer defined in terms of their kinda-sorta-relationship. There's still a spark between them, but it feels more organic and not so forced this season. Fi even lets her guard down at times, especially in "Do No Harm" when she's rattling off the artillery that green, plastic Army men are toting while playing with a terminally ill tyke. She gets so emotionally invested in this case that she can't play it cool and detached when one-on-one with the con artist who bilked the kid's pop out of a couple hundred grand. His mother Madeline is a much more compelling and three-dimensional character this time around too. Even though his mother (and his less-frequently-spotted brother) isn't a driving force in the plot week in and week out, we learn quite a bit about who Michael is and how he got to be this way through their relationship. There's also something kind of intriguing about seeing someone who lies and manipulates for a living wind up on the receiving end. There's a reason Michael is so vulnerable to pleas from clients whose families are threatened, and even though some fans grouse about that angle, Burn Notice wouldn't be the same show without it. As a card-carrying Bruce Campbell fanboy, it kind of goes without saying that he steals just about every scene he waltzes into as Sam Axe, and the sight of him hip-hopping and ranting about Barbara Mandrell to a cigar-chomping Method Man has to go down as one of the highlights of the season.

As if having Ash from Housewares and Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer on the payroll didn't make for enough of a nerdgasm, this season of Burn Notice also features turns from several Lost alums (including Andrew Divoff and M.C. Gainey), Heroes' Erick Avari, Veronica Mars' Patrick Fabian, Firefly's Mark Sheppard, and The Shield's Jay Karnes. The show's teeming with particularly great character actors like Patrick Fischler, Chris Ellis, Clarence Williams III, and Larry Miller in one-offs -- and if the names don't ring a bell, I pinky-swear that you'll recognize them once they're up on-screen -- and among the other guest stars throughout the season are Oded Fehr, Audrey Landers, Robin Givens, Rob Benedict, Method Man, Max Martini, Tim Matheson, Dina Meyer, and John Mahoney. There are also a couple of recurring characters who really stand out. Paul Tei pops up a few times as Barry, a sleazy money launderer who kinds of serves as Michael's Who's Who guide to the Miami criminal underworld. Silas Weir Mitchell scores some of the season's biggest laughs as Seymour, an arms dealer with a man-crush on Michael who desperately wants to be part of that Brotherhood of Badass. Burn Notice also tosses one more burned spy into the mix: Victor (Michael Shanks), who has all of Michael's smarts and skills without being saddled with that pesky moral compass. Victor knows how much of a threat he is. He doesn't have to snarl or posture, and that's what makes him so menacing. I actually wish there were more of that with Carla. Tricia Helfer tackles the role well -- I love watching Carla's once-unwavering confidence fade over the course of the season -- but there's not that same level of interaction between them. As resourceful as she and her organization clearly are, Carla doesn't particularly exude menace herself. She does change up the formula for the show a bit, though. Tossing Carla into the mix means that Michael now has assignments forced on him, and he has to struggle between carrying those out, gleaning whatever information he can on this shadowy organization in the process, and still field the cases that come his way week in and week out. Sometimes one will stomp directly on the other too.

Burn Notice scored an WGA nomination for best episodic drama with "Double Booked", an ep that sees Tim Matheson playing a mentor of Michael's who resurfaces to bring him on-board an assassination gig. Michael doesn't kill for cash, though, so he tries to get the dead-ee out of harm's way and investigates whoever it is that ordered the hit. The thing is that this guy really wants the job done, and it turns out that he'd hired three hitmen to carry it out. A parade of twists and double-crosses quickly follow, and Matheson makes for perhaps the most ominous threat Michael is pitted against all season. Another one of the season's best, "Bad Breaks", veers away from the client-of-the-week formula. Think Die Hard in a bank. Michael and Agent Bly (Alex Carter) are ensnared in a meticulously-engineered scheme to knock over a private bank. With no guns, no C4, the only other guy who knows what he's doing cowering in the corner in a pool of his own blood, and, to a point, no contact with the outside world, Michael really has to step up his game to prevent a couple dozen hostages from being slaughtered.

There really aren't any disappointingly weak episodes or glaring missteps this season. Even the stretches that didn't really work for me are usually redeemed by...well, everything else in the episode. Take "Hot Spot", f'r instance. The clients-of-the-week make for some of the clunkiest acting this season -- hell, Rayon Chelsea Casamayor's one and only line of dialogue might be the most stilted delivery I've heard all year -- but everything else about the episode is genius: thermite burning through an engine block, a bar being torched, and the rare sight of Michael, Sam, and Fi squaring off against the bad guys side by side. Because USA split Burn Notice not quite down the middle and aired this season in a couple distinct chunks, that means you're basically scoring two season premieres and two finales in one package. The mid-season finale builds up to a high-speed car chase and a colossal explosion, and then it segues back into another breakneck chase down the streets of Miami. Hey, that's more Death Race 2000 for your entertainment dollar! The season's closed out by "Lesser Evil", and it's unrelenting, wall-to-wall action for 42 minutes straight before belting out a game-changer for season three.

Burn Notice does a pretty incredible job weaving together the action, a brilliant sense of humor, and just the right dollop of drama into every episode. There's a breakneck car chase, a megaton explosion, a bareknuckled brawl, or a shootout each time out...and if you're lucky, all four of those, repeatedly even. It's escapist entertainment but still feels grounded in some sort of reality, striking a balance that shows like CSI: Miami fumble. That's the difference between a series that's trying desperately to be cool and a show like Burn Notice that just is...that earns it. This is one of the most endlessly entertaining series on television, and if you haven't tuned into Burn Notice up till now, its second season is as good an excuse to dive in as any. There's a backstory, sure, but unlike such top-heavy shows as Lost or The Venture Bros., Burn Notice is accessible enough that first-timers can tear straight into season two without feeling the least bit overwhelmed. Just watch it. Highly Recommended.

While most other TV shows set against the backdrop of Miami emphasize the city's more glamorous side -- opting for more of a glossy, hypersaturated visual style -- Burn Notice is just as likely to skulk around its sticky underbelly. Maybe that's why its 16mm photography is so gritty and grainy. There's often kind of a rough-hewn, run-and-gun look to it too, and quite a few shots are unusually soft as a result. Longtime Burn Notice fans shouldn't be caught all that offguard by this, and season two is sharper and more detailed than what I've caught of the first season in high-def on Universal HD. It is erratic, though. Some stretches take advantage of the additional resolution that Blu-ray can belt out -- the "let me tell you a story..." close-up that opens "Sins of Omission", for instance, and the many HD establishing shots of Miami -- while many others are indistinguishable from what I'd expect to catch on DVD. Skimming through some of the usual home theater forums, a lot of people seemed shocked by just how soft Burn Notice can be, so go in with reasonable expectations. Its palette tends to be kind of low-key too. It's not that Burn Notice isn't colorful, but it veers away from particularly bright or vivid hues. I'll admit to being caught off-guard by the amount of speckling in a few episodes, and there's even a hair in the gate at one point in "Double Booked".

Tearing through these sixteen episodes, I couldn't spot any hiccups that don't date back to the way Burn Notice was originally shot. The macroblocking I'm used to suffering through on cable never creeps in, and the pervasive sheen of grain stays tightly rendered in these AVC encodes.

The short version's that Burn Notice doesn't exactly dazzle in high-def, and it's frequently a very modest step-up -- if that -- over what I bet I'd see in an A/B comparison with a DVD boxed set. There are enough stretches that benefit for it to be worth the few extra bucks to me, but the particularly price-conscious might want to keep that in mind before forking over their credit cards.

Each episode of Burn Notice is backed by a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, although it doesn't really trump what I'd expect to hear out of a DVD set.

The surrounds are kept chattering throughout thanks to the score by John Dickson and other snippets of music. It's a lively mix that fleshes out a strong sense of atmosphere: reverb in some of the more cavernous sets, lapping waves, clinking silverware and background chatter over dinner, and cars zipping around the streets of Miami. In the earlier episodes, though, the action stays pretty much rooted to the front channels. Some effects slink back to the rears -- explosions, shattered glass, and the truck bleating down the highway in "Rough Seas", to rattle off a few -- but they're generally spread across the front mains. The sound design seems to get more aggressive in the second half of the season as shotgun blasts, engulfing flames, and a siege on a suburban home attack from every direction. There's even some really nice imaging to the dialogue across the entire soundscape in "Truth and Reconciliation", something I'm not all that used to hearing on a TV series. Since something is blown to holy hell every episode or two, it kinda goes without saying that the low-end's pretty meaty. The subwoofer doesn't rattle the room, no, but bass response is still solid enough. The music is also backed by a tight, punchy low-end, and I love the throaty growl of Michael's Dodge Charger. The recording of the dialogue is uneven -- it really shows some strain when Michael's shouting in "Do No Harm" -- but all of the line readings are still clear and consistently discernable throughout.

Burn Notice sounds like it was mixed primarily with stereo in mind, which is...yeah, understandable since that's how the overwhelming majority of viewers are going to catch it on TV, but it doesn't make for much of a smolderingly intense experience or whatever on Blu-ray. I'm kind of skeptical I'd be able to pick up on any difference in fidelity between these lossless soundtracks and the DVD set too. Even though the mix doesn't sparkle and the sound design isn't particularly ambitious -- more on the lower rungs of routine than outright disappointing -- Burn Notice is still perfectly listenable on Blu-ray.

There aren't any dubs or downmixes this time around, but subtitles are served up in English, French, and Spanish.

  • Audio Commentaries: Matt Nix grabs as much of the cast and crew he he can for the three commentary tracks in this set. For the season premiere, "Bad Blood", Nix sits down with director Bronwen Hughes, writer Rashad Raisani, and actors Ben Watkins, Rob Benedict, and Method Man. There's quite a bit of chatter about the casting -- especially Burn Notice writer Watkins stepping in front of the camera for a change -- along with some of the subtle nuances the actors use to color their performances. Really comprehensive and still ridiculously fun, this track also tears through Method Man going all John McClane on some shattered glass, spells out where the not-stupid idea for the X-ray gun came from, and Matt Nix stepping into the ADR booth for some of Jeffrey Donovan's lines in the all-time rainiest episode of Burn Notice.

    Director-slash-co-star Tim Matheson chats over "Double Booked" with Nix and writers Jason Tracey and Craig O'Neill. The four of 'em talk about Matheson being onboard this episode as a director before being cast as Larry, the ingenious staging of a stunt with a dump truck, and the writing process behind an ep that started off with a much more overtly comedic bent. Filming in the crew's favorite hangouts, Matheson's visual style, and directing without sitting in a posh canvas chair are all frequent topics of conversation.

    Last up is the season finale, "Lesser Evil". Yup, this is the one with the obligatory Bruce Campbell commentary track -- as if The Chin could co-star in something and not hammer out a commentary -- and he's paired with co-star Michael Shanks as well as Matt Nix. I'd probably point to "Lesser Evil" as the most educational of these three tracks 'cause I learned that Canadians make the best bad guys, the network brass wanted a volcano or a helicopter or something to factor into the finale, and...heck, I even found out why Bruce Campbell hasn't eaten Cap'n Crunch in forty years. They also tackle the extensive stunts and visual effects work in this episode, including one explosion so deliriously colossal that it had to be cut down in editing.

    I really dug all three commentaries. No one speaker dominates any of these tracks, they never trip over each other despite so many people being crammed into the recording booth, and they strike that perfect balance between being a fun, breezy listen and belting out a metric ton of information about these shoots. The interface is on the clunky side, though. When you select a commentary on the 'Special Features' menu, you then are stuck having to navigate back to 'Episodes', sifting through the title of each ep, and then selecting the one you want.

  • Deleted Scenes (11 min.; SD): Extra snippets are piled on for just under half of the season's episodes: "Breaking and Entering", "Trust Me", "Comrades", "Double Booked", "Do No Harm", "Truth and Reconciliation", and "Lesser Evil". Some of 'em don't amount to much more than an extra line or two of dialogue, but there are several full scenes in here, including Michael posing as a pissed-off foreigner to bark his way out of a traffic scrape, Fi laying down some ground rules for a dead-ee caught in several assassins' crosshairs, and a cut-rate payday from a millionairess. Oh, and if you couldn't get enough of the breakneck car chases from the season finale, another thirty seconds of that have been tacked onto the end here.

  • Gag Reel (10 min.; SD): "You're laughing, and my mom was &#$%ing kidnapped!" Burn Notice packs on a really long -- and really great! -- blooper reel.

  • Nixin' It Up on Burn Notice (14 min.; SD): This featurette takes a look at creator Matt Nix's stint in the director's chair for "Do No Harm", and it veers away from the standard issue making-of formula. Nix chats about the advantages of having the showrunner take the reins over a journeyman director, why it wasn't nepotism that his tow-headed tyke was cast as Jack, and the impact rainy Miami afternoons have on the storyboarding process. Nix also talks about the added strain his characters are under in this particular episode, the way architecture is used to help visually distinguish between the white hats and the bad guys, and how many layers he and his writers try to pile onto each episode of Burn Notice.

  • Boom Notice (9 min.; SD): Dunno if you'd slap the Easter Egg label on an extra that's not exactly hidden, but the third disc in the set serves up a spoof of the show starring Burn Notice's boom operator Fred Kupfer. Just keep an eye out for Michael's shades.

Burn Notice's second season is spread across three BD-50s in a traditional size Blu-ray case, and it's kind of a drag that there's no episode guide or anything tucked inside.

The Final Word
Stylish, witty, overflowing with action, and sporting one of the best casts on TV -- c'mon, they have Bruce Campbell on the payroll! -- if you haven't been tuning into Burn Notice up till now, this Blu-ray set is one excuse to start. Because of the way the show juggles its running arcs with the one-and-dones, Burn Notice is accessible enough that the uninitiated shouldn't have any trouble diving straight into its second season either. It's worth noting that this isn't a series that screams out to be experienced in high-def, and I'd bet a pretty hefty chunk of people would point to this Blu-ray set as being a marginal improvement -- if that -- over the DVDs. There's enough of a boost for it to be worth it to me, but if you're feeling the crunch, you might want to save a few bucks and opt for the DVD boxed set instead. Whatever format you decide to pick it up on, though, Burn Notice's second season still comes Highly Recommended.

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