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Burned to death: Dave looks back at Burn Notice

July 9th, 2014 by Dave Bowling Comments

His name was Michael Westen. He used to be a spy.

I first dropped across the USA Network’s Burn Notice one weekend while bored and channel surfing. After a few minutes I found a thing on FX that involved that bloke from Blair Witch 2, that girl from Press Gang, one half of Cagney & Lacey and the MIGHTY Bruce Campbell, blowing stuff up in Miami. Needless to say, I got drawn in.

Michael Westen used to be a spy, working for the CIA as a sort of freelance consultant who could deal with terrorists and warlords while the US government maintained deniability. Until one day while trying to pay off an arms dealer in Nigeria, the CIA issues a burn notice on him. A burn notice is an official statement issued by an intelligence agency that states that an asset or intelligence source is unreliable for one or more reasons, often fabrication. In Michael’s case, it means that he gets seven shades kicked out of him by said arms dealer before making a run for it and blacking out on the plane. When he wakes up, the CIA have dumped him back in his home town of Miami. If there is anywhere Mike would like to be less, it hasn’t been discovered yet.

The powers that be have at least been kind enough to phone his emergency contact first of course, ex-girlfriend and former Irish gun runner Fiona Glennanne who he met when undercover in Dublin. Offering no support, Fiona has only come to watch him suffer. With his assets frozen and credit cards cancelled, Michael is forced to track down old friend and ex-Navy Seal Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell is GOD!) to get help in finding work that his very particular set of skills can be put to, until he can figure out how and why he was burned and get his job back. Of course this assumes he can avoid his mother dragging him back into endless family squabbles…

From these relatively humble beginnings, what is possibly the best spy saga since Bond emerged. Michael uses his training to act as a sort of unlicensed super-PI, taking on cases and clients that no sane person would touch. With skills in unarmed combat, weapons, explosives, electronics and even acting, Michael assumes cover identities seamlessly and has the ability to rig up equipment that would make MacGyver weep with envy. For example, he creates a bug using two pre-paid mobile phones, makes fake C4 using cake icing and even bullet-proofs a car using old copies of the Yellow Pages. Sounds ridiculous, but an episode of Mythbusters showed that phone directories in the doors would stop any pistol bullet. While scratching a living as a modern-day Robin Hood, blowing up the occasional car and supporting his yoghurt addition, Michael also tries to track down the people who burned him, leading to the discovery of a black-ops shadow organisation within the American intelligence community that would make HYDRA weep with envy.

The earlier four seasons are by far and away the best, mixing the action with character humour as the people around Michael squabble and fight. Fiona gets work as a bounty hunter for bail jumpers, Sam goes through a string of rich divorcee girlfriends and Michael’s dysfunctional childhood comes out via mother Madeline and brother Nate. Michael seamlessly goes from one cover ID to another, playing arms dealers, neurotic meth lab chemists, suave car thieves and even Beelzebub himself. Unfortunately things start to come crashing down when his actions inadvertently get an innocent NSA agent fired.

While the last three seasons began to take themselves far too seriously, the show was still an entertaining spy drama. If anything the show detailed just how versatile an actor Jeffrey Donovan is, with Michael assuming a completely different persona every week, sometimes several times a week. Thankfully Gabrielle Anwar abandoned the ropey Irish accent after the pilot (“Oi’m in Moiami”), with Fi trying to avoid attracting attention by adopting an American speech pattern. And then there’s the awesomeness that is Sam Axe. Bruce Campbell is awesome, whatever he’s in, and playing Burn Notice gave him carte blanche to go nuts. On the one hand you had the beer-swilling, Hawaiian shirt-wearing Sam; on the other Sam’s undercover alter-ego Chuck Finlay. Chuck was usually an amoral ex-military thug who would deal with any shady organisation imaginable. Need someone to be a convincing Mafia hitman? Call Sam, get him to dust off Chuck’s ID.

The show also attracted a slew of guest stars familiar to anyone who watched science fiction or fantasy. Just about every guest played against type, being best known as heroes in their previous lives, for example Lucy Lawless played a hitwoman using a small boy to bring out his father so she can shoot him. Moon Bloodgood appeared for a good part of season 3 as a cop determined to find something she can charge Michael with. Robert Patrick even cropped up in a few episodes as a businessman funding a private army. Probably best of all, Michael Shanks plays another burned agent, working for the organisation that burned Michael and constantly being on the verge of going postal and killing everyone in the scene. Although as an exception to the rule, Tricia Helfer played season 2’s recurring villain Carla.

And then there’s the stunts. All action shows have their fair share of stunts but Burn Notice went all-out. Every episode was packed with explosions, fistfights or gun battles, or more often than not a combination of all three. People leapt off buildings, using a bad guy as a counterweight to abseil. But lest we forget Michael’s Dodge Charger muscle car, the unsung hero of the show. Formerly owned by his late father and obtained from Madeline’s garage after an argument with Nate, the Charger was shot up, blown up, crashed, rolled and generally abused for six years before finally meeting its end in the last episode of season six.

Even if the show became more generic action potboiler in its last years, Burn Notice will be sorely missed. HMV stocks the box sets. Go and buy them. Now!

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Dave was born at an early age to parents of both sexes. He has been a self-confessed geek for as long as he can remember, having been raised through the 80s on a steady diet of Doctor Who, Star Trek, Red Dwarf and (sigh) Knight Rider. Throw the usual assortment of Saturday morning cartoons into the mix and we have something quite exceptional: someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge of utter tosh; a love of giant robots and spaceships fighting; and the strange desire to leap tall buildings in a single bound while wearing his underpants over his trousers. The death ray is currently in the works and one day you shall all bow to him, his giant space station and fleet of funky orange space shuttles...