Wednesday, June 3, 2009

TV Review: USA Network's Burn Notice -- First 3 Episodes of Season 3 (Friends and Family; Question & Answer; End Run)

An All New Season of Burn Notice
Kicks off June 4
In Its New Time-Slot: 9/8 Central

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Burn Notice

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Correa Bros., Amy Bell & Pablo Escobar - Burn Notice (Soundtrack from the TV Series)

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“Spies aren’t trained to fight fair; spies are trained to win,” former CIA operative Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) explains in season three’s opening episode “Friends and Family.”

Utilizing the same “My name is Michael Westen,” self-deprecating narration that precedes every episode-- allowing new viewers to catch up every week and join the legions of fans that have made this incredibly hip non-traditional spy series the number one show in all of cable television-- Burn Notice seamlessly picks up the thread of the previous storyline.

Yet by this point, Westen’s memorable introduction has become much more than just a staple of the series. In fact, his ongoing narration throughout the show has evolved into a Burn Notice trademark. Likewise it's one that’s actually just as important as not simply the chemistry of the show’s lead actors (Donovan, Gabrielle Anwar and Bruce Campbell), but it also serves as the ideal partner to Burn’s sexy, fast-paced cinematic visuals to ingeniously counter the explosions, chases, and gun-play in the Miami setting.

Unexpectedly tongue-in-cheek and filled with dryly funny observations, blithely acerbic throwaway spy-speak that makes explosives and torture sound like gardening tips and kitchen recipes-- it’s the screenplay’s ability to underplay the rather extraordinary events that give the show its wholly original spin of letting you inside the rather strange landscape of spies and ex-spies.

And of course, the show focus on one burned spy in particular with Donovan’s tremendously acted Michael Westen. Westen-- now cut off from his old employer of the US government—has teamed up with his “trigger happy ex-girlfriend,” in the form of the stunningly beautiful IRA trained explosives expert Fiona (Scent of a Woman’s Gabrielle Anwar) alongside the scene-stealing and humorous “washed-up military intelligence contact” Sam (Bruce Campbell, basically playing a subtle variation of “Bruce Campbell”).

Free from both the water in which he plummeted at the end of season two as well as “from interference by the organization that burned him,” Michael’s troubles are far from over as he still freelances to get by alongside a much feistier and far more flirtatious and emotionally invested Fiona as well as Sam, who’s currently residing with Michael’s mother Madeline (Sharon Gless) to help repair her still mostly blown up home.

When an old friend appears out of the woodwork requesting Westen’s assistance, he accepts the job despite Fiona’s suspicions which results in action galore from a high-kicking fight, a fall from a glass window, and one massive truck explosion.

Unfortunately however, when big things go “boom,” it’s hard for the local law enforcement to look the other way and Michael finds a new nemesis in the form of a twisted “stalker with a badge,” Miami Police Detective Michelle Paxson (Moon Bloodgood, fresh off her turn in Terminator Salvation).

To this end, Paxson dedicates all of her efforts to putting a stop to Michael, Fiona, and Sam’s extracurricular faux law enforcement activities. Nearly right after she's introduced, she busts Fi for bounty hunting without a license, harasses everyone Michael is or has ever been associated with, drags him into the station for endless questioning in a strange interplay that hints she may be attracted to her suspect, and prompts the group to try and hastily move a stash of C4 from a storage facility before the police warrant arrives.

Temporarily able to stay one step ahead of her, Burn Notice begins building into far more complicated plot structures with the second and third intricately written and breathlessly paced episodes “Question & Answer” and “End Run.”

Still annoyed that Paxson has cost Fiona a payday with her bounty, she quickly accepts a job to “knock some sense” into a woman’s husband and intervene in a domestic situation. Grudgingly Michael goes along much to the chagrin of his mother who’s planning to throw her son his first ever birthday party (forgetting that in sixth grade the one she remembered was for a different kid).

With the idea that Paxson could be trying to get into his C4 stash at anytime, the last thing Michael wants to do is play a heavy in a husband and wife custody disagreement but Fiona’s case takes a turn when the child involved is abducted and held for diamonds.

Employing Sam to impersonate a bad cop (which Michael gamely explains in his narration is much less work than playing a good one), they pull a controversial “reverse interrogation” technique where once again Michael is tortured to try and get information in the most puzzling of ways.

Incredibly violent yet unspeakably clever and easily the strongest of the three episodes I screened in the new season so far-- I was stunned when Nix and company decided to layer on even more perilous double-crosses and scores to settle in another hostage drama “End Run” that brings Michael’s brother Nate (Seth Peterson) back to the show.

Overall, Burn Notice is routinely at its best when it goes to great lengths to involve the three main cast mates in the same situation and even more so in episodes like “Question & Answer” when they layer several cases and angles into the roughly forty-two minute running time.

And as far as the new addition goes, it’s safe to say that Paxson will be around for awhile at least until they can figure out either what she wants or how to distract her enough aside from one humorous attempt to do so with finances in the third episode. Likewise the sexual tension building once more between Michael and Fiona is getting as sultry as the Miami heat as we see just in the first three episodes alone and to his immense credit, Nix’s vision for the action drama is wonderfully still intact.

Even though it’s always a struggle to keep the tempo and plot-lines when one obstacle is pushed out of the way-- as Westen realizes he no longer needs to fear being foiled by the group that burned him-- admirably the shows seems to be incorporating new dilemmas in a believable way (for example, I’m guessing that “End Run” will have a follow-up at some point).

Additionally by getting that one plot point out of the way regarding Michael's "burn," it’s the ideal time to start tuning in now as not only does Westen’s opening narration help bring you up to speed but in many cases it’s a great transitional time to jump in.

And in fact, I can attest to this myself, having only seen a handful of episodes before my season three triple play invited me in with the promise by Westen that—just like a spy who wants to win-- the show will never fight fair, managing to challenge us in one of the smartest and most entertaining hours currently playing on television.

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