Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Burn Notice: "Fast Friends"

Illustration for article titled Burn Notice: "Fast Friends"

Burn Notice is supposed to be breezy. It's set in Miami, we see a lot of bikinis, there's quipping, Bruce Campbell, explosions, and I mentioned bikinis, right? Plus, whenever anyone talks about the show, if they talk long enough, that adjective comes up. "Breezy." As in, light, as in, escapist, as in, let's not take ourselves too seriously. Now, in a way, this does the show a disservice, because it is capable of darkness. Nothing too intense, but there's a definite understanding of what Michael and his friends do, and the possible consequences of it, and why it's so important to take out the bad guys whenever they present themselves. Still, this isn't a show about intense depth of character, and I don't think anyone involved is trying to make a statement more complicated than, "Hey, neat!" That's why it's fun to watch. Sometimes you turn on Breaking Bad, sometimes you just wanna see Westen explaining how to prep a jeep for weapons transport.

The problem with "breezy" is that the longer you do it, the more difficult it becomes to maintain the tone. Burn Notice struggled with this last season, giving us an over-arcing plot that had more of an edge, but without the depth to support that ambition. The balance here is very tricky. If you keep repeating the same adventures, the audience will get bored. (Okay, so that's not exactly true, as anyone who's watched a procedural crime drama on CBS or NBC can tell you, but at its best, Burn Notice is a better show than CSI.) Tricks stop being delightful and turn into a chore, and the very elements that made the show so fresh start to wear thin. Yet you can't change too much, because then you lose what attracted your audience in the first place. The secret, then, is that "illusion of change" that TV critics so often talk about. Keep the central dynamic, but do it in a way that doesn't force the characters to forget their development.

Enter Jesse Porter. Todd nailed last week's episode, but "Fast Friends" takes the excellent conclusion of "Friends and Enemies," and makes some smart choices. In his do-goodery, Michael has inadvertently burned a "clean" spy. It's someone Vaughn is interested in, so Micheal has to try and provide the right information to keep Vaughn from bringing the hammer down, but Michael also has to contend with his own feelings of guilt for screwing someone in roughly the same fashion he himself was screwed so long ago. Then there's Jesse himself, an aggressive, sharp guy who isn't about to wait around taking orders in the hunt to clear his name.

I'm still not sold on Vaughn. The actor is great, but the "evil person who Michael has to work with for the season despite his wishes" arc has already played out three times so far, and it's getting old. The shadowy organization that burned Michael and is determined to turn him evil was threatening at first, but has lost a lot of dramatic punch over time, because the idea of Michael getting brought to the dark side is silly, and the organization itself just doesn't seem all that scary. He's beaten them before, he'll beat 'em again, and until the dynamic becomes something other than a way to kill two scenes an episode via veiled threats and exposition, I'm going to continue to zone own during these conversations.

I'm digging Jesse, though. The Westen Players have been an effective crime-fighting team for three seasons now, with little in the way of change-ups: Fi is fiey, Sam is loyal and sarcastic, Michael is determined, and Maddy occasionally complains. The roles are well-filled, and I don't think the show would benefit greatly from, say, suddenly trying to turn Sam into a vengeance crazed psychopath. Jesse, then, offers a chance to throw some chaos into the mix without ruining what we've already built up, and while he's not an immediately gripping character, he's motivated and distinctive enough that he doesn't drag down the others' chemistry.

For instance—well, all right, some set up. After getting burned, Jesse's now being chased by one of his informers, Khan (did anybody else do the scream? I was tempted), who believes Jesse stole some money from him and is willing to go to some very serious lengths to get that money back. Michael can't contact Jesse directly to offer help—the only real reason he'd have to do so is because he's responsible for Jesse's burning, and Jesse would catch on fast and probably not be all that keen in making friends. So Michael starts following Jesse around, helping him escape from the first Khan attack, and then lucks into Jesse making first contact with him. It's a piece of luck that's just plausible enough to not stretch believability. After all, Westen is burned himself, and possibly the only person Jesse could approach who'd understand the situation.


Lots of stuff happens, but the big scene I'm thinking of, in regards to wild card (Michael's the Brains, Sam's the Muscle, Fiona is the Looks, right?), is when Michael, Sam, and Jesse stage an assault on Khan's compound. Michael needs to prove himself to Khan and company in order to effectively con them, so the plan is to have Jesse attack, and Michael save the day at the last second. That's what happens, except Jesse goes off book, forcing some quick improvisation, and Jesse isn't afraid to actually fire directly on Michael in his car, with a shot that would've been a kill if Michael hadn't dodged in time.

I dig that. "Fast Friends" works better as an start to season four than "Friends And Enemies" because it sets up our big arc, Michael trying to help Jesse before Jesse figures out the truth, and it puts everybody in place in a promising way. Maybe it's a little ridiculous to have Jesse crashing in Maddy's garage, but it works; I like the way Maddy's shrillness has softened over time, and her growing acceptance of Michael's work makes her much easier to deal with as a character. There was some great stuff in here, some exciting spy tricks, good action, clever twists, and a terrific ending. Jesse isn't as good as Michael, but he's not stupid, and sooner or later, he's going to learn who burned him. Be interesting to see just how fast Michael can talk when he has a gun at his head.


Stray Observations:

  • Of course, it's also possible Jesse will be gone or dead in two episodes. Fingers crossed.
  • Man, Michael's cover identity voice was terrible. It was consistent, but it was terrible.
  • "Everyone knows that spies are good with languages and firearms, but they need to be great storytellers too."
  • "Like engineers and wedding planners, spies obsess with details."
  • The last scene at Khan's was clever. Maybe Michael's "stare at this paper!" gambit was a little obvious, but I thought it worked, and I especially liked the whole "I've seen that wound before." Khan and his associate were generic, but you can't have everything.