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DVD Review: Burn Notice

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Written by:  Caballero Oscuro

Even though Burn Notice borrows heavily from numerous past concepts, it still manages to feel like a fresh new idea. Anchored by the adventures of a blacklisted spy helping average citizens in trouble, the show heaps on liberal amounts of influence by the likes of MacGyver, The Rockford Files, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and the Bourne movies. Its derivative nature doesn’t detract from its appeal, in fact it gives the show a classic feel that bodes well for graceful aging.

A spy named Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) is on a mission overseas when he discovers that he’s been the victim of a “burn notice” by his employers, effectively turning him into a shadowy pariah with no career, no access to his bank accounts, and no hope of appeal. He’s dumped off in Miami and left to fend for himself, leading him to set up shop as a private investigator/fixer who helps whatever people in need cross his path. Luckily, he has a support network in Miami , most notably sexy fellow ex-spy Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and retired company man Sam (Bruce Campbell), as well as his cantankerous mother (Sharon Gless) and occasionally his brother.

Fiona is basically his equal in spy skills and also a former lover, setting them up as the dueling, canoodling Mr. and Mrs. Smith of the show as they work to reconcile their relationship.  Sam offers the comic relief (exceptionally well thanks to Campbell ), while mama Westen fluctuates between being a nagging, embarrassing parent and a sympathetic character yearning for a closer relationship with her emotionally distant son.

While the principal story is Michael’s search for answers about who burned him and why, each episode functions fully as a standalone story due to the “client of the week” nature of Michael’s adventures.  This leaves the series wide open for new viewers to jump in at any time without fear of being completely shut out of a dense narrative, and also gives it a classic Rockford Files feel (unconventional P.I. helps a new client each episode and breaks rules and heads along the way).

In addition to being a super spy, Michael is also a whiz at fashioning all manner of explosive devices and other concoctions out of whatever seemingly benign materials he finds at hand, giving a gigantic nod to MacGyver along the way. These retro touches and the show’s leisurely insistence on focusing on the case of the week rather than the big picture make the show seem a bit too pedestrian occasionally, but at the same time make it a fun and flighty effort that never seems to take itself too seriously.

Donovan’s winking performance as Michael is heavy on charm, making him an instantly appealing hero. Anwar isn’t quite as successful in finding her footing, often coming across as a mature woman trying way too hard to cling on to her adolescence, but most of the time she serves as a suitable counterpart to Donovan. The show’s surprisingly strong supporting players consistently deliver off the bench, with Campbell especially making the most out of his buddy role.

The Season 1 box set contains all 11 episodes (number 11 is a two-parter) as well as a nice selection of bonus features including a peek at the original audition footage of both Donovan and Anwar, and innovative, scene-specific audio commentary for each episode by the entire principal cast and creator Matt Nix. The 4-disc DVD box set is available on June 17th.

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