The premiere of Burn Notice was a commercial-free hour-plus of great television. Partnered with DirecTV, NBC Universal has released its latest summer replacement series on the USA Network. The season will run twelve episodes, as of this writing.
Jeffrey Donovan stars as Michael Westen, a CIA spy who has been tossed out into the cold for mysterious reasons. The victim of a “burn notice,” he is left with nothing. Westen’s ID has been expunged from data systems, all his assets have been frozen, and FBI agents are following his every move. He’s penniless and without a true friend in the world. Not only that, he’s been dumped back in South Beach Miami, Florida where he grew up. That means he’s trapped there in the same dysfunctional family relationships that he fled from when he first became a spy. It’s an interesting and comedic situation, and Donovan and company appear to be making the best of it.
The episode starts out in Nigeria where Westen is negotiating a buy-off of a local terrorist. He’s supposed to pay the guy not to disrupt work at certain oilfields. In the middle of that high-pressure deal, Westen’s status is pulled. Suddenly he can’t pay this very bad man, and even worse things ensue. The situation is funny and dangerous at the same time, which seems to be the perfect mix for the series and one that will be followed through successive episodes.
Westen escapes with his life, and the next few minutes of episode are quite exciting. Donovan demonstrates great acting abilities as well as physical talent during the fight scenes. I’m quite sure someone else rode the motorcycle he escaped on, but the action sequences were well done and his voiceover added to the excitement and the fun.
This would, of course, be the place where a commercial was inserted. Instead we cut to a scene where Westen is recovering in a bedroom. In short order, we’re introduced to his ex-girlfriend Fiona. She was a thief for the Irish Republican Army and they had a thing for a while. Westen bailed on the relationship, but he still carries her phone number as an emergency contact. That’s why she sat with him for two days while he slept.
Of course even though Fiona did a good thing for him, Westen can’t even thank her properly without making her angry. She goes off in a tizzy. The onscreen chemistry between Jeffrey Donovan and Gabrielle Anwar is there and I expect it will grow as the series progresses. They both seem to approach the roles with the same tongue-in-cheek panache and have a lot to offer physically — beauty and lethal martial arts moves.
Westen calls in a favor from an old friend, a female friend, and we get the feeling that there are a lot of those scattered around. This is obviously a guy who has a lot of history and none of it is pleasant. With his bank accounts frozen, Westen needs money. The only way he knows how to get money is through violently embracing danger. So he becomes an off-the-books private detective. More or less.
Bruce Campbell plays Sam Axe, another ex-government operative. He’s not exactly a proud kind of guy. He’s slumming around Miami and drinking booze provided by rich widows, rich divorcees, and rich wives (not his own). Still he doesn’t mind helping Westen with information. Campbell lives for roles like this, and he’s going to make the most of this one. He’s got a decent showing here, but he hasn’t really been set free at this point. I have a feeling it’s coming.
On top of that, Westen has to deal with his hypochondriac mother, Madeline. She tries to guilt him for not seeing his father during the final years of his life. Westen responds, telling her that he and his father hated each other. Nothing he could do would ever satisfy his father. And he didn’t feel guilty about not seeing his father because the last thing his father told him was that he would see him in Hell. Westen says he figures he and his father kind of had something “on the books” as a result.
Then there are the new living arrangements. Sam fixes him up with a guy that puts Westen in a loft next to a drug dealer named Sugar. That also becomes a source of conflict that runs throughout the episode and gets resolved in an entertaining fashion.
The primary case that drives the episode involves an innocent and honest man who is accused of stealing $22 million worth of art. The police suspect him and no one else really. He offers Westen $4,600 to find out who the real thief was. But it’s the man’s eight-year-old son who really captures Westen’s heart, and it is the boy that Westen is determined to keep protected.
While he is working on the case, while he is dealing with his mom, while he is being followed by the FBI, while he is dealing with his living arrangements, while he is dealing with his ex-lover and depending on her at the same time, Weston is also trying to find out who issued the burn notice on him. His friends at the agency aren’t his friends any more, and the one that will talk to him says he has no clue who issued it.
The story is chopped into bite-sized scenes that move along at a frantic pace. All the storylines are advanced constantly, and we learn more about Westen’s background and spy methods. And all of this is seeded with the sarcastic voiceovers that are going to become a trademark of the show.
In some ways, Burn Notice reminds me of another great semi-spy show. The Equalizer starred Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, a spy put out into the cold who couldn’t walk away from his adrenaline addiction and started picking up side work that dealt with violence and danger. But where McCall was a proper English gentleman in so many ways, Westen is totally of the here and now. He doesn’t like relationships, he doesn’t like his family, and he just wants to be able to get on with his life in a limited fashion that doesn’t leave him stressed out. Any more than having a gun shoved in his face would do. That kind of stress he can live with.
If you didn’t see tonight’s episode, it will be repeated. Check the USA Network website for the dates and times. If you like spies, detectives, mysteries, or sarcasm laced with liberal physical action, Burn Notice will probably be to your liking. I think it’s going to be a great summer series.