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Burn Notice: Season Two
Burn Notice is a quirky little USA Network series that is helping further revitalize one of NBC's cable siblings with its blend of action and humor. The story of former intelligence agent Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), who has been given a "burn notice" (in other words, he's been summarily fired and has no assets, no work history and virtually no "real" identity), the show is a first-person account of Westen's simultaneous attempts to both find out why he was burned (and by whom), while also hiring himself out as a sort of soldier of fortune to pay the bills. The series has a sort of Mission: Impossible feel as Westen covertly weasels his way into various criminal escapades (frequently by donning an outrageous accent or dialect), which gives the show its weekly episodic arc, as the backstory of Michael slowly figuring out his place in the larger "burned" community gives the series its overall sweep.
Season Two of Burn Notice picks right up where Season One ended, with Michael lodged in the back of a semi-trailer, hearing a noisy battle outside. Once he emerges, he quickly finds he's been recruited, more or less, by a mysterious woman named Carla (Tricia Helfer), who taunts Michael on the phone with various sticks and carrots (mostly the former) to get him to do her will. Whether Carla is part of the larger conspiracy which deprived Michael of his original intelligence career becomes increasingly important throughout this season, leading to a sort of semi-denoument in the series finale (with a great cameo by Frasier's John Mahoney.
The series, which takes place mostly in Miami and its surrounding environments (Westen has been forbidden to leave the city by the powers who burned him), plays off the slightly surreal environment of southern Florida with a good deal of panache. Astute viewers may find themselves repeatedly asking themselves why the frell the "shadow government" didn't just off Michael to begin with, once the bodies start falling, the cars start exploding, and various other mayhem starts breaking out across the greater Miami metropolitan area as Michael goes about his business. There's something patently silly about seeing a SWAT team descend on a deserted Florida beach (are there really any deserted Florida beaches left anymore?) while a boat explodes. Where are the tourists?
If you can suspend disbelief for elements like that (which are a regular part of Burn Notice), you're in for one of the more fun spy-action thrillers on television right now, with a great deal of comedy thrown in for good measure. Donovan has an easy, slightly sarcastic delivery (both in his on screen performance and the frequent voiceover) that lets you know the show is not taking itself too seriously. Occasional subtitles provide ironic commentary to what's actually going on on screen (one episode introduces the bad guy, who professes not to be a mercenary, which segues into a freeze frame of his character with the caption "Mercenary"). It's actually the comedy element, more than the often flat out unbelievable action schtick (as well executed and filmed as it always is), that gives Burn Notice its real edge.
The supporting cast has at least two notables that longtime film and television buffs will enjoy seeing in new, and at least slightly against type, roles. None other than "The Chin," Bruce Campbell, plays Westen's longtime nemesis buddy (for wont of a better term) Sam Axe, a guy who used to squeal on Westen to the FBI but now aids him in his exploits (frequently coming up with MacGyver-esque solutions to thorny problems). Campbell is often hilarious in this role, with a weathered, been-there done-it-all style that provides the show consistent laughs. Also along for the ride is Cagney herself, Sharon Gless, equally hysterical as Michael's chain smoking nag of a mother, Madeline. The interplay between Gless and Donovan is a portrait of dysfunction that is both funny and slightly disturbing, but strangely, it's one of the more realistic elements of the series. Gabrielle Anwar portrays Michael's feisty on again, off again girlfriend Fiona, the sort of former IRA operative any good ex-spy wants backing him up and engaging in the occasional romantic clinch.
Much like Miami Vice before it, Burn Notice revels in the carnival like, pastel painted amusement park that is its host city. The show is full of great establishing shots (some a bit too step printed and gimmicked up for my taste, frankly), and the entire series makes excellent use of the entire Miami area. You just may end up wondering from time to time where the Miami police are as bad guys with Uzi's storm Madeline's house, or four of five cars explode, careening skyward only to flip over and crash and burn back on the pavement. Maybe they've learned it's best not to get involved sometimes.
Burn Notice is the television equivalent of a good summer beach read--nothing too demanding, providing solid escapist fare with a certain joie de vivre spiced up with hyperbolic action sequences that make it agreeable eye candy while rarely challenging the brain cells or touching the heart (in fact, I found Michael's teary eyes and quivering lower lip in the season finale after a longtime nemesis is dealt with unexpectedly funny, something I don't think was intended). So far the Miami setting hasn't worn thin, but I have to wonder, as the show enters its third season, if the ridiculous action on steroids sequences will. Burn Notice has done a good job so far of being wryly self-mocking as it goes about its business. Whether or not it's able to continue walking that tightrope will probably determine whether the show itself gets its own burn notice later rather than sooner.
Don't expect BD magnificence in Burn Notice's 1.78:1 AVC transfer. This is a pretty soft, grainy series to begin with, and so the source material does not provide anything superb that a BD can exploit. That said, colors are vibrant and lifelike, with excellent saturation. Contrast is similarly excellent, with good modulation from the sunshiney whites and yellows to the cavernous blacks of some of the interior shots. You won't be complaining about DNR on this release--this is one of the grainiest shows I've seen recently, and I have to assume that it's purposeful. While detail is of at least DVD quality, softness pervades this entire series, and again I have to assume that was similarly done on purpose. Your mileage may vary, but I personally would at least take all of this into consideration when deciding whether to get the SD-DVD or BD release.
The DTS HD-MA 5.1 is considerably more robust, if often a bit too front heavy for my taste. You'll hear a nice variety of surround effects throughout the many action sequences. Explosions, gunfire and attendant LFE boom from the rear channels and subwoofer with considerable energy. What I found at least a little peculiar were the "day to day" ambient effects like crowd noises and the like, which are almost always front and center. Dialogue is all crisp and clear and the underscore is nicely mixed, frequently spilling over into the surrounds. Not quite as aggressive a mix as you might expect from a show with this much action, this is still way above average for series television. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.
Several extras are spread out over the three BD's that make up this set. Three pretty good commentaries dot this release, including both the season premiere and finale, one including former animated action star Jonny Quest himself, now director Tim Matheson. Several individual episodes offer brief deleted scenes, few if any of which amount to much. About 10 minutes of sometimes fun outtakes are featured in a Gag Reel, creator-director Matt Nix is featured in another 15 minute or so featurette, and if you click on Westen's "shades" icon on the third BD, you get a kind of silly parody called "Boom Notice," featuring the show's boom operator.
If you're looking for some fairly mindless, escapist fare that is frequently funny and is always well cast and directed, Burn Notice may be just your summer television ticket. It's nothing too revolutionary or groundbreaking, and its action elements are just this side of ridiculous, but it's never less than entertaining. Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet