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Reviewed by Jason Zingale
t wasn’t very long ago that basic cable channels like FX, USA and TNT were limited to airing popular movies and reruns of syndicated shows, but once FX broke into the television mainstream with critical hits like “The Shield” and “Rescue Me,” the other networks weren’t far behind. And if FX is leading the pack in basic cable programming, then USA is nipping at its heels. With shows like “Monk” and “Psych” already doing well in their respective time slots, it was only a matter of time before a third original series was added to that list.
Consider “Burn Notice” the lucky candidate. A high-energy spy drama that is equal parts “MacGyver,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Miami Vice,” the show stars Jeffrey Donovan as Michael Westen, a CIA operative who’s just received a burn notice. Blacklisted by the agency and dropped off in his hometown of Miami, Michael teams up with a former girlfriend (Gabrielle Anwar) and CIA pal (Bruce Campbell) to track down the one responsible. In order to do so, however, Michael needs access to money, and with all of his accounts frozen, he’s forced to put his Special Ops training to good use by doubling as a private investigator, all while trying to not get killed along the way.
Though the series treads dangerously on Villain/Victim of the Week territory, the ongoing subplot involving Michael’s investigation into his burn notice keeps the series chugging along. A new piece of the puzzle is revealed nearly every week, and while most of Michael’s supposed progress is really just a reason for the writers to play hooky with the audience, well, if they didn’t, the show wouldn’t have much of a future past the first season. Thankfully, the major draw of the series isn’t where it’s going, but how it’s getting there, and that’s a product of the top-notch writing.
Between dropping nuggets of wisdom via witty voiceovers about everything from the CIA (“A spy is just a criminal with a government paycheck.”) to family (“Thirty years of karate, combat experience on five continents... Still haven't found any defense against Mom crying into my shirt.”), “Burn Notice” is also keen about offering tutorials on certain tricks of the trade à la MacGyver. It’s all in good fun, of course, but while creator Matt Nix has claimed the writers always leave out a “key ingredient,” my girlfriend learned the hard way that the above statement might not necessarily be true. (All I’m going to say is, don’t ever turn a can of compressed air upside down and spray someone with it from point blank range – it burns.)
Of course, the show isn’t completely dependent on Michael’s sarcasm and creativity, and though they’re a great addition to the story, there wouldn’t even be one to tell were it not for the cast. Bruce Campbell and Gabrielle Anwar offer amazing support as Michael’s bickering friends, and Sharon Gless is a joy as his mother, but while it was Campbell who initially got me interested in “Burn Notice,” it was Donovan who kept me coming back for more. He’s not just pitch-perfect in the role – he’s the heart and soul of the series, and though I’d like to believe it would be just as good with someone else playing the lead, that’s simply not the case.
To be fair, a show like “Burn Notice” could have succeeded on any network, but it’s a good thing it ended up on USA. Basic cable channels are far more forgiving to new series, and had it landed on one of the major networks, it likely wouldn’t have been given the chance to grow. That isn’t to discredit “Burn Notice,” however, because while it isn’t one of the most popular shows on TV, it’s certainly one of the best. A perfect blend of comedy and action, shows like “Burn Notice” don’t come around too often, but when they do, it’s difficult not to take notice.
Special Features: “Burn Notice: Season One” isn’t quite as jam-packed with extras as the back cover might indicate, but it’s still a great collection for fans of the series. The highlight of the four-disc box set is a series of scene-specific audio commentaries (available on all 11 episodes) with creator Matt Nix and the cast. They’re insightful and entertaining, and it only makes you wish they had recorded tracks for the entire episode. The rest of the extras are pretty hit and miss, and while the included video montages are completely unnecessary, the three-minute gag reel (which is essentially The Bruce Campbell Show) and audition footage (for Jeffrey Donovan and Gabrielle Anwar) serve as excellent supplements to the show.