As a self-professed geek, Matt Nix is extremely interested in how things work. Prior to Burn Notice and his short-lived retro buddy-cop show The Good Guys, Nix made a few short films, one of which caught the eye of a former intelligence operative Michael Wilson. They became friends, and Burn Notice evolved from a desire to set the record straight about what it’s like to be a spy and demystify the gadgets and techniques of the trade. The show, which wraps up its fourth season tonight, focuses on recently “burned” spy Michael Weston, who’s dropped back into his hometown of Miami after 10 years of covert life abroad. He divides his time between investigating who burned him and taking on private-eye work to make some extra cash, along with ex-Navy SEAL buddy Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell) and ex-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), who has a knack for blowing things up. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Nix about the evolution of the show, the prequel he’s in the process of writing, and why Michael Weston eats so much damn yogurt.
The A.V. Club: How did the idea for Burn Notice evolve?
Matt Nix: I’d known a guy named Michael Wilson for a long time, who is a consultant on the show and has a background in private intelligence. My conversations with him had sparked an idea for a show about private intelligence consulting firms, which I thought was sort of an interesting arena. Then I realized over the course of thinking about that idea that I was really more interested in who spies were as people than I was about writings stories about people running around the world doing spy things. That evolved into an idea where we kind of take the espionage out of the spy, if you will. I had heard about this thing called a “burn notice,” and it seemed like an interesting way to take a spy, clip his wings, and make him use all of the things that made him a spy in a non-espionage context. That allowed me to explore the stuff that I was interested in without having to build fake sets of Turkey and pass-coded messages.
AVC: To what extent is Michael Weston based on Michael Wilson?
MN: There are aspects of Michael Weston that are inspired [by Wilson], but he’s also a combination of many influences. There are certainly aspects of Michael’s character inspired by that, but other aspects that are drawn from other sources or from my head or heads of other writers. Or indeed, from Michael Wilson’s head. The character’s not meant to be him.
AVC: Were you also influenced by the Hollywood spy culture of James Bond and the like?
MN: To some extent it’s unavoidable. But if you think about James Bond, in a lot of ways James Bond’s behavior—and I like James Bond—distinguishes him as the opposite of a spy. He’s called a spy, but what does he actually do? Not only does he identify himself, he repeats his real name twice whenever he meets people. It’s not really a spy thing. [Laughs.] It’s like a movie-star thing. Espionage relies to a large extent on deception, and that’s not really James Bond’s thing. He’s kind of a “get into a place and fight your way out” kind of guy. It’s more of an action conceit. I think we’ve certainly played with aspects of that. We did one episode where Michael sort of pretends to be a James Bond-like character but explicitly talks about how that’s what people expect spies to be.
So, playing to their preconceptions can be useful, and that’s actually something that spies do. They will use people’s attraction to the glamour of espionage against them. I’d say if you look at the world of spy fiction, Burn Notice is more interested in technique than most spy fiction. John Le Carré would be an influence. We also read a lot of spy histories and spy non-fiction. There’s a lot of stuff that’s inspired by various books about the exploits of the Mossad or KBG or CIA or indeed, various traitors as well. There are a lot of good histories of people like Aldrich Ames or Robert Hanssen. You can get technique out of that.
AVC: And a lot of your show focuses on demystifying specific spy techniques.
MN: Yeah, a lot of times I’ll think about an idea, some aspect of spies you’ve seen on television and in movies, and either show that it’s actually a real thing and here’s how you do it, or that it’s not a real thing and here’s the real thing that would be done. There’s a whole range of ways that we can treat that stuff. I find that interesting. I mean, I think part of it is that I have a real affection for the genre, but I’m also kind of a geek when it comes to how that stuff works. I was always the guy at the dinner party who wants to tell you how stuff works or that kind of thing, inflicting my little lectures on people.
AVC: Michael is often heard saying torture is unreliable. Do you see Burn Notice in some way as a response to the “torture solves all” mentality of 24?
MN: Yeah, to some extent. It wasn’t so much a direct, frontal assault on 24 as it was reading a lot. It was related to the general approach of, “Here’s how you think it works, and here’s how it really works.” It wasn’t so different from debunking the idea that spies run around with watches with lasers in them. In reading about people in the intelligence community commenting specifically on 24 and also the portrayal of torture in the popular media, they’re pretty upset about it.
They don’t like it, so if you want to do something that says, “Here’s how this works,” that’s how it works. They don’t torture. They may do it, but it’s not particularly effective. The best ones don’t. 24 as a show needed to move very quickly for obvious reasons, so they couldn’t really utilize any techniques that took more than a couple of minutes. Shooting someone in the leg and having them give you the answers is pretty much the only technique that works in a few minutes, or threatening their family or something like that. They sort of painted themselves into a narrative corner with regard to getting information from bad guys. We’re not in that corner, and we’re interested in how it works in the real world.
AVC: You guys have a prequel in the works now?
MN: Yes, indeed. It focuses on Sam’s last job before he comes to Miami. Michael has a cameo in it, but it mainly focuses on Bruce Campbell’s character. It takes place in South America. Sam sort of screws up and gets a crappy assignment to go down to South America on an observe-and-report mission. Things go dreadfully wrong, and he ends up having to take on a very different mission than the one he was sent down for. We’re still working on the script, so I don’t want to say anything that might change.
AVC: Going back to the show, Michael always takes on different aliases for each assignment, but Sam is always Chuck Finley. Is this due to their different backgrounds?
MN: Where the Chuck Finley thing comes from is something that’ll come out in the prequel. Sam worked in military intelligence, but he’s not primarily a spy. He’s primarily a Navy SEAL. I like the idea that everybody in the show has a unique approach to doing what they do. I didn’t want it to be a show about three spies doing spy things, because I think it’s less interesting dramatically. They each have a perspective on how things are best done, and they live in slightly different moral universes.
AVC: Madeline has evolved from Michael’s nagging mom into one of his operatives on a couple missions. Is she going to have a greater influence in how they do things in the future?
MN: I think it’s a natural evolution of the fact that she now knows a lot more about what Michael does and how he does it. The short answer is yes, but we kind of ran through everything there is to say about Madeline not knowing what Michael does and kind of wanting to know what Michael does. We said it in the first season. Now it’s more interesting to explore what are ways that Michael is like Madeline and what are ways that Madeline is like Michael. What does he learn from her, and what does she learn from him? What aspects of his personality came from her?
AVC: It seems the biggest villains on the show are not thugs and terrorists but corporate CEOs like Barrett. Why is this?
MN: I think it’s really more about the struggles of the less powerful against the more powerful. Sometimes that’s a CEO, sometimes that’s a drug lord, and sometimes that’s a cop. There are any number of variations on it. It certainly doesn’t reflect a political agenda vis-à-vis corporations. This is a little bit meta and maybe a little bit “inside baseball”: If Michael were to find himself in conflict with another 40-ish guy of medium build with his same basic background, then that’s a fist fight in the works. It doesn’t justify a lot of spy activity. There’s not a whole lot of espionage in there. Since part of what the show is about is the application of espionage technique in other contexts, that just works better against the powerful, the organizations and that kind of thing. I wasn’t really interested in doing a cop show that happens to have a spy in it. I wanted to do a spy show.
AVC: Now that Michael has Barrett’s list of the people that burned him, is the next season going to focus on him hunting them down?
MN: There may be an aspect of that. You’ll have to see where it going by the end of the year. Some aspects of that are mixed up by the end of the year. Right now, part of what he’s struggling with is, “What do you do with that?” Just because you have this card to play doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy to play. Who do you give it to and how is a big question. That’s part of what we’re dealing with now.
AVC: Are we going to see more of John Mahoney’s shadowy character, Management?
MN: This year’s been really more about Vaughn and Michael’s interactions with him. I wouldn’t rule out a future appearance of Management, but I think after Management’s tangling with Simon at the end of season three, he handed Michael off to Vaughn with the idea that Vaughn might be in a better position to handle him.
AVC: Why does Michael eat so much yogurt?
MN: That’s another thing we talk about in the Sam Axe prequel movie. The simplest answer—well, there are a couple different versions of that question. One is that it was something we started doing in the pilot and just sort of stuck with it. It was kind of an accident and became a fun thing to have recur. The spyish answer is that if you’re traveling around the world, and you’re in a lot of different places with different kinds of food—particularly if you’re in oil-producing countries and that kind of thing—you’re looking for an inexpensive, consistent, and cheap form of protein. Yogurt, being a live-culture kind of food, is generally going to be pretty safe wherever you go.
AVC: Both Burn Notice and The Good Guys have a playful tone without whitewashing the violent and dangerous situations that inevitably arise from their characters’ jobs. What are the challenges in striking this balance as the show-runner?
MN: I tend to like comedy that’s not setup, setup, punchline, and joke comedy, so I’m always on the lookout for that. I tend to like humor that is inserted into otherwise dramatic situations. It’s not something I’ll sit down and analyze much. A line will just pop into my head while writing some more intense scene.
AVC: Is part of it that your characters are more nostalgic, non-ambivalent heroes instead of the contemporary antiheroes we see on a lot of shows?
MN: Certainly in the case of The Good Guys, they are unapologetic, classic heroes. It would be fair to say that Burn Notice is a show that doesn’t have a lot of episodes where the bad guys straight-up win. There are some shows where that happens, you know. You have an episode of The Shield where the bad guy just gets away. [Burn Notice] falls generally into the category of entertainment that is about watching people resolve a problem one way or another. I don’t think, particularly now, that Michael is an uncomplicated hero.
AVC: Not uncomplicated. Just that we always feel he’s on the right side of things even when he’s breaking the law.
MN: Yeah, one of the things that we play with is this idea that his compulsion to be a good guy is not necessarily healthy. His compulsion to be a good guy comes from a specific psychological background that has to do with his identification with victims and problems with victimizers and that kind of thing. I think also one of the things that we explored a lot with the Simon character, and particularly with the Larry character later in this season as well, is that Michael is willing to do dark deeds for a noble purpose, but the line that divides him from someone who’s willing to do dark deeds for an ignoble purpose is very thin. Whenever he’s interacting with Larry, Larry’s pitch is always, “Hey man, I know you. I know who you are. You’re a dark guy. You’re angry. Enough of the Boy Scout B.S. Just let it rip, man. Just start dropping people. It’s not that hard.” Michael doesn’t laugh that off. He isn’t who Larry thinks he is, but at the same time, Larry’s not entirely wrong. There is a part of Michael that wants to do that.
AVC: Is he going to grapple more with that fine moral line?
MN: Yeah, I think part of his journey as a character—he always has Fiona at his side saying, “Why are you doing this? What is this about?” He’s always confronting those issues that, as time goes on, are deeper and deeper cut. I think you saw it in the episode with Tyne Daly, where Madeline basically accuses Michael of playing God and asks him why does he get to decide what innocent people get victimized for the sake of other innocent people to be saved. She makes a friend and has to destroy that friend’s career for the sake of saving someone’s life. Tyne Daly’s character didn’t do anything.
AVC: That was an especially raw moment.
MN: The stuff Michael’s doing isn’t free. In that case, she’s saying, “What kind of person are you? Why do you get to do this?” He doesn’t have a ready-made answer that’s without conflict. You can see—and I think Jeffrey [Donovan] did a terrific job playing this—that’s something that he struggles with.