August 4, 2008


I Like to Watch: Is it a crime to dislike crime dramas? TNT's "The Closer" spices up the procedural mix, but USA's "In Plain Sight" and "Burn Notice" give the genre an extreme makeover. (Heather Havrilesky, Aug. 03, 2008, Salon)

But "Burn Notice" (10 p.m. Thursdays on USA) may be my favorite crime-related drama (outside of "The Shield," of course), in no small part because instead of solving crimes, Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) is often hired to save regular people from criminal entanglements of all stripes. Aided by his ex-girlfriend, Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), and his best buddy, Sam (Bruce Campbell), ex-spy Mike pulls off outrageous heists, gets clients out of semi-illegal jams, and generally lives the life of the sophisticated, high-end con artist, interrupted occasionally by angry phone calls from his mom, Madeline (Sharon Gless).

Michael was once a spy, but he got fired (see also: burned) and it threw his life into turmoil. Now he does odd jobs to support himself while he tries to get to the bottom of why he was blacklisted, who did it and what he can do to clear his name. He came a little closer to solving that mystery at the start of the second season, when he finally met Carla (played by "Battlestar Galactica's" Tricia Helfer), who is somehow involved in Michael's downfall. Lately, Michael has discovered that Carla may have been an operative in Pakistan (which he first determined because she spoke Arabic with a Kurdish accent -- oh, the expertise of this guy!). But forget Carla's identity, I just can't wait until she and gun-toting Fiona meet. What could be better than a tough-lady catfight? On a show that delights in flashy, dynamic stories and general-purpose silliness like this one, it wouldn't be surprising.

Like a smarter, funnier, modern-day version of "The A Team," "Burn Notice" is closer to comedy than drama. Although the stakes are always high, even the heaviest scenes end on a comic note. Take this exchange between Michael and his mother, who was shocked to discover what her son did for a living at the end of last season:

Madeline: What about me, Michael? All these years, and finally I see what you do. You tell me I have to leave town at a minute's notice, I can't talk on the phone, we're being chased by men with guns! How am I supposed to deal with this?

Michael: All these years you wondered why I didn't come home, why I didn't call. This is why, Mom. I never wanted this for you.

Madeline is rendered uncharacteristically speechless.

Michael: I'm sorry.

Madeline: [Pauses] Well, it still doesn't explain why you didn't write!

Later, Madeline and Michael go to counseling together, leading to one of the funniest dramatic scenes I've seen in months. When asked by the counselor to explain her frustration with their lack of communication, Madeline begins by demanding to know why Michael forgot to call her on her birthday eight years ago. Michael answers with a polite but ironic tone: "At the time I was stationed overseas, transporting a colleague to a locked facility. There were some individuals who were trying very hard to prevent me from doing my job. I was injured, and in a field hospital for six weeks. They didn't have a phone, so I could not ... communicate."

Then it's Michael's turn to discuss communication, so he sweetly asks his mother about the time he was forced to steal groceries to feed the family because his ne'er-do-well father had blown his paycheck again. Michael came home with the groceries and a black eye from the grocery store clerk, and his mother took the food but never mentioned the black eye. When Michael's done talking, Madeline looks stricken, and as they're walking out of the office later, she declares that the therapist isn't a good one and that they shouldn't go back.

Like "In Plain Sight," "Burn Notice" rambles far from the typical crime drama plot, and each scene is buoyed by Michael's always casual, always confident demeanor in the most dangerous of circumstances. Jeffrey Donovan brings such charisma and swagger to this role, it's impossible to imagine the show having half its appeal without him.

Best of all are his crime how-to voice-overs: "Check fraud is more about technique than high-tech equipment. Some old checks, a roll of Scotch tape, some nail polish remover, and you're in business!" Or more memorably, "In a fight, you have to be careful not to break the little bones in your hand on someone's face." Or "Blackmail is a little like owning a pit bull. It might protect you, or it might bite your hand off."

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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 4, 2008 7:07 AM

"In Plain Sight" got exed off the DVR because of a gratuitous vulgar remark about Cheney which IMO has no place on TV. It'll probably be a big hit, but isn't welcome in my house.

"Burn Notice" is our favorite show now with "The Big Bang Theory" a close second. We've seen some episodes of TBBT several times and laugh at the silliness each time.

Posted by: erp at August 4, 2008 9:52 AM

I love Michael Westin's turn of phrase:

"Spend a few years as a covert operative and a sunny beach just looks like a vulnerable tactical position with no decent cover... I've never found a good way to hide a gun in a bathing suit."

Posted by: Mike Morley at August 4, 2008 10:17 AM

Weston's scene with his mother in the psychologist's office, especially as they were leaving, was comic gold.

Posted by: Patrick H at August 4, 2008 12:23 PM
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