By Cultural Learnings
Burn Notice, premiering its third season on Thursday, June 4th on USA Network at 9/8c, is a show that started out as something very small. The story of a CIA operative who suddenly finds himself burned (blacklisted from government work, stuck with no passport, no money, etc.) and dropped off in Miami, the show may appear on the surface to be a traditional formula: with the help of his “trigger-happy” ex-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and his former colleague Sam (the week’s honoree, Bruce Campbell), Michael Weston (Jeffrey Donovan) helps out people in the community who need someone who knows how to handle a gun, is able to rig a bomb out of just about anything, and who’s street smart enough to get the job done without involving the authorities.
At that basic level, the show is a procedural like any other, but it was first boosted by two primary elements that raise its quality. First, the presence of Anwar (who despite being a polarizing figure is damn fun to watch due to her sadistic streak) and Campbell (who is both the heart and humor of the show, usually simultaneously) help to give the show a nice banter, along with Michael’s connection to his mother and brother who also happen to live in Miami. Second, the missions themselves take the form of Michael offering narration as to his MacGyver-like abilities with hardware store purchases — he takes us through the missions piece by piece, allowing us to see the inner workings of the process. It takes missions that are good to begin with thanks to their populist streak (everyone likes to see a good guy helping out the little guy) and gives them an added point of interest for the viewer, especially those who enjoy geeking out at some ingenious engineering. Combined with the beautiful Miami setting, and the bikini-clad women who somehow always seem to populate the streets, and you have a show with something for everyone.
But in the show’s second season things expanded to a whole new level for the series: left in the background for most of Season One, popping up only on occasion, Michael’s quest to discover who ordered the burn notice has become a recurring serialized element that has really given the show new life. With Tricia Helfer’s Carla as the mouthpiece, the group who burned Michael reached out to him in an effort to both keep him close by (as he was getting dangerously close to the truth and they decided to utilize his need for information) and to toy with him a little. Suddenly, Michael’s time was being divided between helping the little guy, still an important part of the show, and also completing mysterious errands for Carla while secretly infiltrating her network of associates in an effort to discover the truth.
The result, as Alan Sepinwall of the Star Ledger puts it, was palpable: “This is a show that started off as a diversion at best, then became a fun summer lark, and now I consider it essential, terribly engaging viewing. It feels epic in a way that I never would have expected at any point in season one.” The stakes were suddenly much higher, as Michael was completing missions that were placing Fiona, Sam, and especially his family in extreme danger.
What is perhaps most miraculous is that the show kept its sense of humor through all of this, especially from Campbell’s Sam: he’s just as likely to throw off a quippy one-liner as he was before, but he’s also more protective of Michael, and his assistance has become less of a burden and more of a chosen occupation. In a particularly strong second season episode, where Michael and an FBI agent were trapped in the midst of a bank robbery led by guest star Mark Sheppard (Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Dollhouse, and just about every sci-fi show in existence apparently!), a legitimately dangerous situation was well balanced with some great humor as Sam and Fiona did some sly work outside the walls that allowed Michael to take control inside the bank. It didn’t do anything to advance the bigger stories, but it was a suspenseful episode that also left room for big explosions and humorous banter, something Campbell of course knows quite well.
This all came to a head in the show’s second season finale just earlier this year [SPOILERS INCOMING], when Michael and another burned CIA agent, Victor, took on Carla and her people directly. After a gun battle on a boat, Fiona gunned down Carla, and Michael was forced to take Victor’s own life (at the other agent’s pleading, as he had already been shot) in an effort to halt the ongoing conflict. We then saw Michael get on board a helicopter, where John Mahoney (Frasier) was waiting with an offer: Michael could become the new Carla, placing other people like himself in dangerous situations and becoming one step closer to understand the truth.
However, Michael values his conscience and his own freedom more than the “truth,” and despite threats against friend and family he chose to remain a protector rather than an enforcer, leaping from the helicopter high above the bay and swimming back towards shore. It’s set up an exciting third season, one where the threat against Michael is higher than ever but his priorities (his friends, his family, helping people) are firmly intact. Sure, part of me will miss having Tricia Helfer around, but I am legitimately excited to see where things go from here. [END SPOILERS]
For those who haven’t watched the show at all but want to catch up, Season One DVD is currently available at Amazon and other retailers, and Season Two is available now for pre-order (for a discounted price, pre-order the Seasons 1-2 Combo Pack); however, while you’d be missing out on a lot of great TV to do so, you could probably jump into the 3rd Season and still find plenty to enjoy about the show.
Burn Notice returns Thursday, June 4th, at 9/8c on USA Network.