At some point during the first half of Burn Notice’s awesome second season, I had a revelation about what this show is. It’s like a shiny, modernized, HD version of the kind of dimestore pulps my buddy Keith highlights in his Big Box Of Paperbacks project. Take a hooky plot, render it with lean prose, pepper it liberally with sex and violence, and slap a stylish cover on it. There’s something so wonderfully unpretentious about it all. Burn Notice is by no means run-of-the-mill, but it is workmanlike, in a good way. It’s put together by people who don’t just know what buttons to push, they have access to buttons that lazier writers have all but forgotten about.
That said, there’s a certain base-level preposterousness you have to overcome to be a Burn Notice fan. Tonight, for example, our hero Michael finds himself recovering from a bomb detonated in his own apartment by people he assumes are working for his shadowy sometimes-boss Carla—though she insists otherwise. And while Michael’s pushing Carla to cut him loose, get his brother out of jail, and give him the answers he’s looking for about who got him booted from the world of covert ops—while the series’ master-plot is inching along, in other words—he just happens to run into a suicidal dude with a sick son. It’s an awfully convenient turn of events for a show that runs on capers-of-the-week as much as it runs on its central mystery.
But then those kind of keep-things-moving story developments aren’t that unusual for this genre. The question of who burned Michael—and how Carla fits into the big picture—is pure backdrop, like Richard Kimble searching for the one-armed man in The Fugitive, or like any of the petty soap opera elements that run through popular series fiction. Really it’s the case that matters, along with the unusual predicaments the case pushes the hero into. How we get to the case almost doesn’t matter.
So tonight a charred, shell-shocked Michael stops a guy from jumping in front of a bus, then learns that the guy is trying to kill himself in order to get insurance money for his son Jack’s heart operation. A few more details later and Michael’s taking it upon himself to track down the fiends who scammed Jack’s dad out of all his money (by promising a pharmaceutical cure that doesn’t exist). And we’re off. No time wasted.
Michael’s plan to trap the scammers: try to out-scam them. He has Sam and Fiona play the part of a desperate patient and a snake-oil salesman, respectively, and then waits for the other medical predators to show up and chase the competition away. (By the way, I liked how well Sam sold himself as a man in need. “You said you’re having liver trouble?” Fiona asks. And Sam replies, “Yeah, damn thing’s falling apart.”)
The problem is that these medical scammers are such awful, awful people that Michael doesn’t really want to go his usual route of trying to infiltrate them by cozying up. Instead he delivers a vicious handshake fake-out to one thug (kneeing him square in the head) then proceeds to threaten and bully the rest of the team until they agree to give his client his money back and give themselves up to the cops. Even Fiona gets impatient with these rogues. When she goes to meet the ringleader and hears the details of how she exploits the pain of parents with terminally ill kids, Fi drops her cover and cold-cocks the bitch. It’s a different kind of operation for our crew this week.
But this episode still contains all the Burn Notice signifiers: a montage of glistening ladies in swimsuits; a few cool makeshift gadgets (including a clever use of a cel phone, a laptop and an ambulance to track down Rachel’s house), and some raw brutality. The brutality comes in the form of an information-gathering trick called “Who Talks First?,” in which Sam ties two dudes to chairs, blindfolds them, and then pushes one out a high window in order to get the other one to spill. (The window-pushee’s chair was tethered to the floor, but his blindfolded partner didn’t know that.)
The formula may be familiar, but it’s the way Burn Notice mixes it up that makes it such a fun show. More than any ongoing story, Burn Notice is about the frozen shot of Sam’s pistol blast during “Who Talks First?,” or Michael explaining to the audience how best to secure a room. It’s those details that make an episode of Burn Notice like a snowflake (or a brush with death): “Unique, and icy cold.”
-It was a nice surprise to see Jeffrey Donovan in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling this past fall, playing a total creep. Donovan’s such a dynamic presence that I hope more directors find a way to use him.
-“Funny thing. I poisoned all my yogurt. Just in case you stopped by.”
-I’m intrigued by the idea that Michael may find the people trying to kill him and turn them into allies in his personal war on Carla. It’ll be interesting to see how that works.
-So Fi enjoys playing Army Men with Jack, huh? And she’s just lost her boyfriend too. How long before she and Michael start thinking about raising a little spy of their own?
-I’ve always wanted to write a medical thriller with the title First: Do Harm.