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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

‘Burn Notice’ finally gets my notice

I couldn’t tell you what night USA Networks’ Burn Notice airs. I’d had no plans whatsoever to watch it at all, but I was channel surfing one day soon after it debuted earlier this summer and came across an episode, and something I saw — which I’ll get to in a moment — made me realize that I had to be watching this. So I set the DVR to record every episode — thank the gods of TV for cable networks that air shows a gazillion times, and in marathons for new viewers to play catch up — and let the episodes pile up, biding my time till I had a moment to watch ’em. I forced that moment this week, when I discovered that the show would be taking a little hiatus while USA airs the U.S. Open, and hence I could dig myself out from under that big pile of Burn Notices.

What I saw, flipping around, was Bruce Campbell. Bruce Campbell! God of geeks, Robert DeNiro to Sam Raimi’s Marty Scorsese, and one of my perpetual boyfriends! How could I not have known Bruce was on a new show? How could all those ads in the subway for Burn Notice not have had vivid, impossible-to-miss banners across them announcing “Starring Bruce Campbell!”? This is one of the great mysteries of life, at least at the moment.
Now that I’m nearly caught up with every episode, I’m delighted to have learned that I was wrong in my belief — somehow misapprehended from that brief glimpse of Bruce I’d gotten during that channel-surf — that he was playing the father of the main character, former spy Michael Westen. Bruce is, after all, only ten years older than actor Jeffrey Donovan, and I was all ready to be wildly indignant on Bruce’s behalf. But I’m saved from that. Oh, and also: Bruce with a few more pounds on him and a few more gray hairs is just as hot and snarkilcious as ever he was.

But just as neat is discovering that there are lots of reasons to watch the show beyond drooling over Bruce Campbell. Burn Notice is really smart and funny — in that wry, dry way I like so much. Westen is, basically, MacGyver with a better wardrobe. He loves duct tape, can make a car bomb from a cell phone, thwarts eavesdropping devices with a vibrator, and is generally just cool and competent as hell. The plots of each episode are almost beside the point. He’s doing favors for friends and friends of friends that are just outside the law — he outsmarts a lot of the shady side of Miami, drug smugglers and gun runners and pimps and the like — while he tries to figure out who “burned” him, who made him persona non grata with the CIA or Homeland Security or whatever government agency he was an operative of.

Oh, the stories are just fine: it’s just that they’re really there to highlight how clever Westen is and what cool things can be done with technology when you don’t worry about voiding your warranty. And to show off the contentious relationships Westen has with Campbell’s Sam, a former cold warrior now intent mostly on getting drunk and laid who also happens to be selling Westen out to the feds; and with Gabrielle Anwar’s Fiona, his former girlfriend, a former operative for the Irish Republican Army, and a gal who’s way more aggressive than Westen is. (“Violence may be foreplay to you,” he tells her in one episode, after she beats up some schlub who’d been waving a gun in Westen’s face and then gets ready to jump Westen, too, in the more fun sense of to jump, “but not for me.”)

Who knew? Burn Notice turns out to be the most fun guilty pleasure on TV this summer, maybe all year. Hoorah for cable. The networks should be looking over their shoulders, worried.

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  • Harley

    I am shocked, SHOCKED that you didn’t jump on this right when it started. The only reason I watched the first episode was because I had seen Bruce in a commercial for it and I figured, somewhere in the universe, the other Bruce fans out there already knew about the show and I was way behind.

    I am so glad that selling point was there, too, because a show that I might otherwise had ignored has become one of my current favorites. Jeffrey is great and I really love the casual attitude towards plot.

  • MaryAnn

    If I’d known Bruce was in it from the start, I’d’ve been watching from the start.

  • Will

    And in case you hadn’t heard, yet, Burn Notice has been picked up for a second season already.

  • Lindsay

    Bruce Campbell’s awesome and all but where’s the love for Jeffrey Donovan?? He’s the reason I’m watching this great show. What a good actor he is. I’ve only ever seen him in Come Early Morning and the fact that he is so perfect in two completely different roles blows me away.

  • MaryAnn

    Yeah, Donovan is good. But he’s no Bruce Campbell. :->

  • Magess

    Man, I wish I’d known you weren’t watching it or I’d have told you about it. I didn’t think I wanted to watch Burn Notice, but I watched the first episode just to give a new show a try. And then I saw it had Bruce and I decided to pay attention. And THEN I discovered that the show is actually awesome from the writing up.

    The thing that I love? I cannot predict what Michael is going to do. I know nothing about spy stuff. Which means both that they can come up with whatever they want and I’ll believe them AND that I have no pool of knowledge on which to draw to predict how they’re going to save the world this time. I like not knowing how an episode is going to turn out before I actually watch it. And I like that I don’t think I could have written it myself.

  • MaryAnn

    Excellent point, Magess. The show’s lack of predictability is a huge mark in its favor.

    But unless you could have added more hours to the day, telling me about the show weeks ago wouldn’t have done any good. I DVRed it in anticipation of a moment when I might have a few minutes to finally watch it.

  • Magess

    That was actually why I complained when I first saw the ads. I really didn’t want to add -another- show to my list of things to watch. The new Fall Season is going to try to take over my life with all the genre things they’re giving a go. I kind of actually hope many of them are terrible just so I’ll have free time.

  • Drew

    Just a point of clarification on this review. Bruce Campbell’s character (Sam Axe) does NOT play Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) father. Bruce’s character is simply a friend of Michael who has connections to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

  • MaryAnn

    I think I made that clear, Drew. I do NOT say that Campbell plays Westen’s father, just that I thought, before I saw the show, he was, and was wrong to believe so. Is that in any way unclear?

  • Yes, this is a good show. Sort of like The Equalizer: The Next Generation–but not quite.

    If the Mission: Impossible movies had had a similar sense of humor…well, they didn’t. So there.

    And no love for Gabrielle Anwar? She’s obviously come a long way since Scent of a Woman….

  • Ryan

    Gabrielle Anwar did a nice job in a small role on The Tudors as well, she seems like a fairly versatile actress.

    Also, Tonio, what’s up with the thread necroing??? For a minute I thought Maryann was just finding out about Burn Notice in ’09, heh.

  • Actually, I just watched the show for the first time this week. A friend recommended it earlier but I didn’t have the opportunity to watch it until this week. That’s why the necroing.

    Unless you mean to suggest there’s a time limit on these items…

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