Over the past five years, network television has been awash in mythology-heavy adventure series, soapy serio-comedies and one-week-at-a-time procedurals, so it's been left to basic cable to pick up the slack and air the kind of character-driven mysteries and episodic dramas that used to be TV staples. Last summer, USA found a sizable audience with Burn Notice, a light-toned but action-packed quasi-detective series starring the lithe, angular Jeffrey Donovan as disavowed spy Michael Westen, who picks up some extra cash as a private investigator (while trying to learn who sold him out). Between the glamorous Miami setting, the high-tech capering and the dry humor, Burn Notice made for fine summer escapism: gripping but ultimately undemanding.
As Season One ended, Michael had been invited back into the fold of our shadow government, and accepted because he thought he might finally learn once or for all why he'd been "burned." Following the instructions of a smoky female voice, Michael drove a Spy Hunter-ready Caddy into the back of a freight truck, and waited. As Season Two opens, he's still waiting–and pontificating in voice-over about how spies pass the time while waiting–until his phone rings, the back of the truck opens, and he finds himself surrounded by fire, smoke and corpses. The voice–"Call me Carla," she says–tells him to pick up the frightened, bound computer geek Jimmy off the ground and truck him back to Miami for a job. "A paying job?" asks Mike's buddy Sam (played by the inimitable Bruce Campbell). "No, sort of a, 'We'll kill you if you don't do it,'" Michael replies.
Stylistically, Burn Notice has always had a lot in common with Guy Ritchie's early films, only brighter and more effortless. It's an association "Breaking And Entering" strengthens by having Michael adopt a slow, thuggish British accent as part of his cover for the operation he's being forced to head up. "Carla" wants Michael to use Jimmy to break through computer firewalls he designed himself in order to retrieve some data from a band of technologically advanced mercenaries. Michael adopts the accent, pitches himself as a client, then grills bad guy Ryder Stahl about his security system, so that he can find ways to skate around it.
The actual action of this week's episode ends about 10 minutes early–after some of those neat stings and switcheroos that both make Burn Notice so much fun and also make Michael's character seem maybe a shade too unbeatable for real drama–so that creator Matt Nix can get some continuity business out of the way. First Michael and Fiona sort of break up (again), and then Michael and Sam meet Carla, who flirts and waves at them before she reveals who she is. (Turns out she's Tricia Helfer. Huh.)
"Breaking And Entering" sets up Season Two well, giving Michael a formidable nemesis/boss that should give this next run of episodes some extra juice. Carla is manipulative, mysterious, and she may or may not be a Cylon. But even more important, "Breaking And Entering" reminds the show's fans why we watch: To learn that airbags in cars make evasive maneuvers tough, and that you have to look out for wiring when you cut through floors, and that a life in covert ops makes you think of people as assets. (Though as Michael points out about Fiona, in a possible not to Gabrielle Anwar's most famous pre-BN role, "You don't miss the scent of an asset.")
-Apologies for the delay in posting this review. I had trouble with my TiVo scheduling and had to wait for the replay. (Actually I could've gotten it on my alternate TiVo, but my cable company just added USA's HD channel, and I wanted to see Miami with the proper color palette for a change.) And to answer the inevitable question: This is just a one-off review, but I plan to keep watching the show, and I may try to return to blog this season's finale if the series stays strong.