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

Burn Notice: “Shock Wave”

Illustration for article titled Burn Notice: “Shock Wave”

As you may have noticed, I’m not your normal Burn Notice reviewer. Scott couldn’t be here this week, so you’re left with me, a guy who watched the first two episodes of the series, then never really found time to keep up. Psych was the only USA show I watched with regularity until Suits came around last year and filled the trashy legal show void, but Burn Notice stayed on my radar, and not just because of derisive jokes from the likes of Aziz Ansari (it’s nothing like the Josh Duhamal/Las Vegas situation, because, hello, Bruce Campbell). It’s nowhere near the creative cellar of a show like CSI: Miami, and seems much more like a MacGyver, Miami Vice, and Get Smart mash-up with a dash of Bourne thrown in for the steely lead.

From what I can tell, here’s what’s changed since those first few episodes: Fiona went with the new accent, family has become more involved, if only on an infrequent recurring basis, and Burn Notice has followed in the grand tradition of serialized cable procedurals to make very slow narrative progress over a long period of time. Michael and Fi are presumably in an “on” phase of the on-and-off relationship, but she’s in prison until the end of the episode, and she gets out thanks to some clever collaborative hiding and sentence reduction techniques from fellow inmate Ayn, the “person who knows how to get stuff” stand-in for Morgan Freeman in this little Shawshank riff.

The overarching plot stays with Michael and his team tracking down Anson, the man responsible for burning Michael. The guy has lived in Miami for five years, worked his way back up to working for the CIA with real high-tech spy equipment again, but is still caught up in tracking down the people responsible for burning him and stranding him in Nigeria. Nobody really mentions why any of that happened, but I guess Michael would really need more face-to-face time with the shadowy powers that be for that information. Whatever the case, it’s clear that Michael is after this guy, and won’t tolerate any rookie mistakes like his brother Nate ordering pizza to the sting headquarters at the motel, and even reprimands him for telling some rambunctious partiers that the motel has bedbugs, for fear it’ll send everyone away and scare off their target.

Tonight’s MVP is far and away Bruce Campbell, easily the most compelling reason to watch this show. Maybe not watching the show on a regular basis means I’m not tired of his schtick. That’s entirealy possible, since I think he’s great in his supporting roles everywhere from the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films to McHale’s Navy. As a viewer with little investment in the long-game plots involving Michael and Fiona, Sam getting trapped with Barry in a mansion and having to configure a bunch of ingenious contraptions was wickedly entertaining. The DIY gadgetry is fun to watch and funny to see actually work in practice, and even the distracting voiceover style isn’t as bothersome when the tools at hand are so intriguing. Rigging motion sensor zipguns out of flood lighting and using a porcelain bathtub for protection in a gas explosion (Burn Notice’s own version of nuking the fridge) are some of the most visually exciting and entertaining sequences in the episode, and Campbell’s character would keep me coming back strictly for his drunk handyman uncle charm.

That brings us to the big emotional lynchpin of the episode. After a quick phone call pseudo-reconciliation, Nate defies orders and goes directly after Anson, clocking him in the face and holding him at gunpoint outside the casino. But as Michael and the rest of his team pull up to take over, a booming gunshot rings out, killing Anson and mortally wounding Nate, who only manages to utter “I’m scared,” as Michael hover over him. Since this is my first Burn Notice episode in about five years, I imagine this moment would have more emotional weight to the show’s followers than it was to me as the telltale signs of a big event started showing up, from the diegetic sound fading out until nothing was left but the soundtrack to Michael’s mom slapping him and pounding on his chest while he struggles to embrace her. Nate’s final moments are pretty rushed, as is most of the whole sting operation tracking Anson to Atlantic City. I'm not trying to be insensitive, because I can think back to some brutal sibling moments in shows I've cared about over the years, but watching what seems to be a milestone development and turning point, the death of Michael's brother, without the context of previous appearances, it's harder to look past the generic style in which it's placed.

“Shock Wave” isn’t going to convince me to suddenly devour the show on Netflix—but that might be because there are too many other shows I’m trying to catch up on. It certainly provides enough Bruce Campbell ingenuity to make watching the episode completely out of context worthwhile. After five and a half seasons, there are still more puppeteers behind the puppets Michael sets his sights on, and that’s not exactly an encouraging sign for anyone thinking of catching up on over 80 episodes, to know that after years of digging and pulling odd jobs around Miami, he's still grasping through layers of mystery. It reminds me of the deliberately slow pace of Castle, or the romantic progress on Psych, or a newer show like Grimm. But aside from the standard emotional manipulation and derivative style when dealing with a character death—the “IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT” guilt-driven scenes at the end are particularly forgettable with the attachment of a devoted viewer—Burn Notice knows what to do to provide basic-cable action fun. And there’s nothing wrong with that in the summer television wasteland.


Stray observations:

  • Scott will be back next week, thanks for putting up with a complete newbie with a different perspective this time around.
  • Hey look it’s Professor Slater from Community! And Ethan from LOST—of course he’s a killer bent on taking out Bruce Campbell. That guy is such a buzzkill.
  • Barry: “I’ve never climbed Kilimanjaro. I’ve never seen The Wire. I’ve never even had a four-way!” Sam: “I’ve never strangled a friend in cold blood before, but it’s early.”
  • I see there’s a Sam Axe prequel film. Is that worth seeking out before watching the rest of the series, or would I have to wait until after season 4?