On Notice

Burn Notice has undergone a strange transition as far as I’m concerned. It started out as I show I watched for the ongoing arc, which meant I was willing to sit through the job-of-the-week stories to get to it, but it’s somehow transmogrified into the exact opposite over the last season or so.

It’s the X-Files, Chris Carter thing again… The first season of Burn Notice was something of a mystery story. The main character, Michael, is an American spy who was “burned” (blacklisted) For A Crime He Didn’t Commit, and he spends most of the first season trying to figure out who burned him and why, while simultaneously dealing with the federal agents who are now intensely curious regarding his activities.

This was all in the background, though. The actual episodes of the season involved Michael working as a fixer of sorts for various people who’d gotten themselves into the kind of trouble the legal system wasn’t equipped to deal with. Most of the episodes, then and now, are about 80% job-of-the-week plot, where Michael uses his experience as a spy to effortlessly steamroll gang-bangers, drug dealers, and con artists, and 20% burn notice arc, where he works on unraveling whichever ongoing mystery he currently had on his plate.

The problem is that the series is premised on a mystery that can’t really be solved without ending the series. If Michael ever succeeds in clearing his name, he can go back to his old job, and boom, no series. Moreover, I’m given to understand that the show’s filming process is sufficiently involved that filming outside of Miami is more or less impossible, so Michael can’t ever be allowed to leave the city on a long-term basis. This results in an inability to even make real progress on the long-form arc — his enemies all have to come to him, which grows increasingly contrived as the series proceeds.

You could sort of see this coming as early as the second season. The last several episodes of season 1 involved Michael arranging to go to Washington D.C. to sort out the burn notice, and the last scene of the season showed Michael driving into the trailer of a big rig in the middle of a deserted highway, narrating about how sometimes you just have to make a leap of faith and hope for the best. The first episode of season 2 showed Michael being dumped back in Miami and receiving a new client-of-the-week before the first commercial break. Although the season’s villain coyly implied she knew what was up with the burn notice, it was clear the writers (or the network) weren’t going to lightly sacrifice their winning formula so easily. (Sure enough, the villain in question was killed before she could reveal anything meaningful, but not before making Michael and company jump through a bunch of pointless hoops first.)

It’s become increasingly obvious that the writers have no endgame in mind here, and are content to just string Michael along until ratings start to droop. Recently Michael has signed up to help bring down some vast clandestine corpo-governmental conspiracy or something… it’s gotten to the point that I’m barely paying attention when Gilroy or Vaughn or whoever’s leading Michael on this half-season starts talking. Yeah, yeah, encoded Bible, list of names, evil corporate executive… whatever.

But you know what? I’m totally cool with that. The arc isn’t really why I watch the show anymore — any more than I watch it for Michael and Fiona’s chemistry-free romance, or Westen family drama. Burn Notice is about Michael hitting bad guys and blowing up their buildings and MacGyvering ludicrous spy gadgets out of cell phones and phone books — and the show is still providing that in spades. It’s about the peppy, not-entirely-serious dialogue. It’s about Bruce Effin’ Campbell.

That’s not where I expected the show to be three years ago. But it’s not exactly a bad place to be, either.

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