Sunday, December 13, 2009

tv highlights of the '00s: burn notice

For the most part, I don't believe in guilty pleasures. Why feel guilty about pleasure? But there are some cases when I do. When a TV program, for example, is nothing but stupid, minute after minute, but I keep watching it. Why? Maybe because the arc of 42± minutes required for drama/mystery/crime teleplays is, at this point, so scientifically perfected in this day and age, that if a show meets minimum watchability requirements, it's enough to sustain my interest. Maybe because, if the writers are not completely subhuman, and they clothespin two quips to every three minutes of running time, I will laugh hard at least once each episode. Maybe there's a higher percentage of employees at the networks and cable outlets who show up for work alert and sober.

Whatever the reason, there's one recent cable television program that fits the description in my opening. It's stupid, stupid, stupid, but I just keep watching, watching, watching. It's about a small group of roguish individuals who, episode after episode, led by a resentful ex-operative, help out some poor schlub who's found himself, or herself, or their family, in a pickle. Each hero has a checkered past and a good heart.

That show is called Leverage. We're not here to talk about that show. We're here for Burn Notice, and while Leverage (appearing one year later) kinda sorta rips off Notice's version of rough-and-tumble professionals helping out goodhearted citizens and protecting them from villains and scoundrels, it's not nearly in the same league. Leverage is cheese fries, a get-by show. Burn Notice, on the other hand, is just really fucking good.

You have undoubtedly already heard the premise of Burn Notice, but even if you haven't, it's reiterated at the top of every episode. "We got a burn notice on you. You're blacklisted..." And so on. How does a show get so much mileage from one problem? And how can a show be so much fun when every episode is the same?

Here's how each one breaks down:

Michael Westen: I should be able to get closer to finding out who burned me.
Sam Axe: Think I'll have another beer.
Fiona Glennane: (something sexy/catty)
Sam: (something something)
Guest Star: I heard you people help people.
Michael: Not exactly, but what seems to be the problem?
GS: Well, (blah blah blah)
Michael: Sorry, no-can-do. I don't like guns (or something).
GS: Pleeeeeeease. (emotional)
Michael: Oh, all right.

Michael solves the problem with MacGyver homemade weapons or telecommunications solutions, cuts through some of the jungle surrounding his dismissal, and the show ends with a funny scene, then a cryptic/dramatic open door for the next episode.

Providing not just action and thrills but novel perspective via Westen's voiceover ("Air ducts in a modern office are 18 inches wide. So if you need to make a quick escape, and you're older than four, you won't fit"), the show's creators execute this structure in nearly every goddamned episode like clockwork, never seeming to fall asleep at the wheel, keeping the show alive with strong writing and recognizable character actors in guest roles, such as Lucy Lawless, Max Martini, Patrick Fischler, Tim Matheson, Mark Pellegrino, Erick Avari, Mark Sheppard (is he on every show?) among others. Apart from them, and the gifts of Bruce Campbell (the chin!), Gabrielle Anwar, and Sharon Gless (never in frame without a lit cigarette), it is Jeffrey Donovan's vehicle for a reason.

Able to out-deadpan George Clooney, Donovan brings tremendous focus to his role, able to slip between moods and states of mind without undue stress. Westen's seeming imperturbability provides comfort and cover through dozens of trials, and even when he's really and truly had enough - when he's bound and helpless and being interrogated by Carla, the one woman who (at that moment) may be the key to the dilemma that's taken over his life - he doesn't crack, but expresses his anger, fear and frustration in simple, articulate bullet points, with sufficient genuine emotion to drive those points home. Rarely has a show used dialogue to diagram the hero's by now familiar goals and challenges and gotten away with it! Credit both Donovan and the house the creators have built around him.

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