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July 29, 2008 by Cameron Cubbison
Burn Notice stars the charismatic Jeffrey Donovan as Michael Westen, a Miami-bound ex-CIA spy who was burned by the agency and now uses his special skills to help clients in trouble while trying to figure out who burned him and why. The third episode of season two proceeds smoothly and consists of two narrative strands. The first involves Michael trying to manipulate a Pakistani security official into giving him an embassy file on Carla (Battlestar Galactica vet Tricia Helfer), the newly-introduced mysterious vixen who was involved somehow in burning Michael. The second and main thread consists of Michael helping a friend of his mother Madeline’s (Sharon Gless) at the behest of Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), Michael’s trigger-happy ex-IRA companion. The fact that Michael and Fiona are on the outs due to Michael’s unwillingness/inability to give up his efforts to get back with the CIA and commit to Fiona complicates matters further.
Michael, Fiona, and loveable schlub/fellow ex-spy Sam (Bruce Campbell) team up to help the aforementioned friend of Madeline’s, a woman whose son faces the wrath of a ruthless loan shark after losing $200,000 to nightclub owner and con man Zeke. As always, the real joy of the show comes from watching the fun performances and listening to Michael’s omnipresent narration, in which he tells the viewer secrets of the spy trade and covert tactics with complete nonchalance, just as if he were discussing breakfast recipes.
Actually lensed in Miami and boasting fantastic production values and flashy camerawork and editing, the show is character-driven and smart. It is refreshingly light but never stupid or campy, and recalls 80s classics like MacGyver and Magnum P.I. One of the most remarkable things about the show is that from the very beginning, it has been firing on all cylinders. The show is perfectly cast, with Donovan and co-stars Anwar, Campbell, and Gless expressing their characters with exuberance and confidence. Donovan, who previously starred in another short-lived but fantastic USA series called Touching Evil especially deserves attention. He has the ability to be amusingly sarcastic but never nasty; you always get the sense that even as he makes wisecracks and rolls his eyes, he generally cares about his work and friends and family. The show feels effortless, like the product of a well-oiled machine, something the majority of television shows spend seasons trying to obtain.
Burn Notice is formulaic in a good way, for its formula ensures that the show will be packaged for maximum entertainment value in every episode. The formula does not overwhelm the character development and interactions. Instead, the plot mechanics, frothy style and characterizations complement each other. The show offers the best of both contained and continuing serials. That is, viewers can jump into the show at any time because each episode is contained, with Michael helping a new client each episode, but the overall story arc of Michael trying to find out who burned him gives the show a narrative drive and sense of forward momentum.