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maryann johanson | watching movies at home

‘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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