A few years back, “SNL” did a game show parody called “What is ‘Burn Notice’?,” where confused contestants struggle to articulate a single detail about the popular USA drama. It was no “Dylan McDermott or Dermot Mulroney,” but it hit on a key point about pop culture: sometimes, the biggest hits don’t penetrate the national consciousness in the way that smaller ones do. “NCIS” is the most popular show on television, and a very good one, but I hear it discussed (by both TV critics and civilians) far less often than “Homeland” or “Scandal.” And while the fictional “SNL” game show contestants couldn’t identify a single thing about “Burn Notice” (one guessed it was “about a sexy doctor who can start fires with his mind”), I suspect even many people who’ve never watched a second of “Mad Men” could describe a few things about it, even though “Burn Notice” (which airs its series finale tonight at 9) was much more popular throughout its run (and even aired directly opposite “Mad Men” in their first season).
Intentionally or not, the title of that sketch raised a question that actual viewers of “Burn Notice” – and I was happily one of those for most of the run – have had from time to time. We knew what the show was about – Jeffrey Donovan as disgraced ex-spy Michael Westen, trying to get back into the CIA’s good graces and in the meantime using his varied skill set to help people in trouble with the help of ex-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and buddy Sam (Bruce Campbell) – but weren’t always clear on what the show actually was.
At times, it was a straightforward private eye show with some espionage trappings. At others, it was a serialized spy show about Michael’s quest to find and punish the people who burned him, occasionally pausing so he could help a small business owner deal with a protection racket. Michael caught all the people who burned him, but then it turned out there were more people who burned him, and even more above them. He went back to work for the CIA for a while, faked his death for a bit, became a fugitive, then went back to work for the CIA again.
In its early days, “Burn Notice” became the prototype for most of the USA shows that followed it: blue skies, attractive stars with great chemistry, drama with plenty of levity – and in the specific case of “Burn Notice,” lots of cool improvised weaponry, like the time Michael melted a car’s engine block with a coffee can full of thermite – and an emphasis on standalone stories with hints (usually at the beginning and end of episodes, and then at the beginning and end of seasons) of a bigger story. If “White Collar,” “Covert Affairs” and other shows that followed weren’t exactly reverse-engineered from “Burn Notice” DNA, it felt awfully close at times.
The show’s creator Matt Nix did a great job of serving multiple agendas and working within the framework USA gave him. In particular, the second season is a minor classic, with all the elements – the Donovan/Anwar/Campbell interplay, the expanded role for Sharon Gless as Michael’s chain-smoking mother Madeline, the bigger arc (involving Tricia Helfer and Michael Shanks as two heavies involved in the conspiracy to burn Michael, and John Mahoney as their boss), individual cases, the banter versus more emotional moments – in perfect harmony.
It was a level of balance the show never quite found again. Sometimes, the spy stuff was more compelling than the cases of the week. At others, the mythology got so convoluted that I’d have been fine with Michael, Fi and Sam (and, later, Coby Bell’s fellow burned spy Jesse) just being freelance do-gooders with no big arcs to worry about. Some of the later villains worked wonderfully (Jere Burns in the very Jere Burns-ian role of a psychological mastermind), others much less so (Ben Shenkman as a talent agent for the spy world). Different fans had their preferences. Some only cared about Michael getting un-burned; others just wanted to watch Donovan speak in a funny accent and blow stuff up. This final season has gone both very dark and very serialized – USA management having clearly relaxed their policies about both of these, for “Burn Notice” and more recent shows like “Suits” – as Michael went undercover for the CIA to take out an elaborate terrorist network. I’ve encountered some fans happy that the show has finally embraced its espionage underpinnings and others who wish Michael would go back to helping the little people and pretending to be Russian.
Personally, I’ve found the material this season(*) a touch on the overwrought side. “Burn Notice” has always had serious moments, but they work best when balanced with lighter moments and simpler stories. When it’s week in and week out of Fi, Sam and Maddie fretting over Michael’s loyalty and which part of his soul is in jeopardy now, it becomes more than these characters and this architecture can comfortably hold.
(*) I should say that I’ve only watched parts of this final season, and only parts of the season before it. USA originally wanted Nix and other producers to do standalone episodes so viewers wouldn’t feel lost and give up if they missed a week or three. But even in its more serialized latter-day incarnation, “Burn Notice” features enough exposition and narrative redundancy that you can still dip in and out with ease.
Tonight’s finale is largely in that vein, with more death, more of the characters fretting over what space Michael’s head is in, and more sacrifice. But there are also several winks to the show’s origins, more improvised tactics, and a comforting sense of what the surviving characters will be up to after we stop getting to watch their adventures. The big emotional moment lands, and the action scenes are cool.
Week to week, and especially season to season, I couldn’t always tell you exactly what “Burn Notice” was or wanted to be. But at its best, what it was was something very simple, but much harder to pull off than it looks:
“Burn Notice was fun.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org