Thursday, January 21, 2010

Burn Notice, "A Dark Road": Cagney vs. Lacey

A quick review of the "Burn Notice" winter premiere coming up just as soon as I have the sewing skills of an orangutan...
"People need me. So I have to." -Michael
"Yes, I guess you do." -Madeline
The first half of this season of "Burn Notice" set up a couple of story arcs - Michael loses the "protection" of management, and Michael tries to get unburned - with a lot of potential I'm not sure the episodes entirely lived up to. But the back half of the season starts very strongly with "A Dark Road, which sets up an intriguing new adversary in the unseen Mason Gilroy, while also presenting a terrific episodic story for Michael, Sam, Fi and, especially, Madeline.

Like Chuck Bartowski, Madeline Westen is a character who's reluctantly learning the tricks of the spy trade through someone she cares dearly about. Even if the casting of Sharon Gless's old "Cagney & Lacey" partner Tyne Daly didn't give the intelligence asset story an extra kick, seeing Madeline wrestle with befriending and then having to destroy Tina was a great showcase for Gless. It was also a nice exploration of the mother/son relationship and of Michael's dawning realization that being a vigilante isn't what he does just to kill time until he's unburned, but a calling he can't ignore.

The insurance scam plot also displayed the show's reliance on good old-fashioned practical stuntwork, as we saw with the various high-speed car chase scenes. At press tour, "Burn Notice" creator Matt Nix turned up to talk about a show he's doing for Fox called "Code 58," about a cop with a mindset stuck back in the '80s, but who's effective despite his throwback methods. I watch a scene like Michael out-racing Ryan as a job audition, or Michael and Sam racing to stop Ryan from pulling the train scam without them, and I can see where Nix is coming from with the "Code 58" character. Car chases used to be a staple on television and in movies, but they fell out of fashion, partly because there were too many of them, but mostly because people started getting lazy about them. When you do them with enough imagination and energy - and add them to a story and characters we care about even without the muscle cars - they can still be very, very cool.

And on top of that, we got the usual spy advice, like the value of using an acetylene torch as a kind of bullet-proof shield, or that you can fit a bug inside a car remote control keyring.

Couple all that with the intriguing marine stadium location, and the fact that Michael has no idea what Gilroy's game is, and the usual Bruce Campbell-related comedy gold ("What's wrong, Sam? I've never seen you drink a beer that slowly."), and I was very happy to be back in this world again.

What did everybody else think?

24 comments:

Lisa said...

I've watched and enjoyed this show since the beginning, but if they can hold this quality level, they'll have a very special half-season. Gless and Daly always rise above the stunt casting whenever they've had a reunion (I remember their re-pairing during "Judging Amy" being very good), but their work really gave Gless a deeper dimension tonight and underscored the costliness of Michael's work. I remember sitting down to watch this show for the first time because Bruce Campbell was in it, but Donovan, Campbell, Gless and Anwar have built a really nice ensemble.

Oh, yeah, and the stunt work really rocked.

M.A.Peel said...

The t-shirt and jeans of Michael's Southern boy was channeling both Paul Newman and Don Johnson's Ben Quick/The Long, Hot Summer. And that does me just fine.

Hoosier Paul said...

I've never watched Burn Notice; is it a show I can jump on now, or will I be hopelessly lost?

dez said...

I felt a sense of glee watching them pull the scam on Ryan--great driving and great expressions on everyone's faces. And Sharon Gless rocked Madeline's last scene with Michael. I love this show!

cgeye said...

[A-hole spammer cleanup on aisle 12:35 AM....]

As for me, I'm a bit leery of yet another Big Bad who will be menacing until he is not.

When do we meet a villain who could reveal the worse parts of Michael's career -- the bits he can't explain away to his mom because he's a cheap mercenary for good people?

cgeye said...

[And another spammer at 2:07 AM]

renton said...

Hoosier Paul, the open of the show tells you all you need to know.

Enjoy it!

DaveMB said...

Hoosier Paul -- this was about the tenth episode of BN I'd seen, and the background hasn't been very important. I also caught up somewhat with the Wikipedia page. The voiceover at the beginning sets up the situation quite clearly, and the only other thing you have to know is that Michael wrote, or could write, an Encyclopedia of Espionage and Covert Operations Techniques. And that Fi is insanely beautiful, but that sort of comes across in the video of each episode.

The CineManiac said...

I enjoyed the entire episode, but that last season between Michael and his mom was simply brilliant.

Michael finally realizing just way he does what he does, not because he needs the money, not because he can, but because people need him and he can't turn them away, was a huge scene for the series, and one that shows just how much Michael has changed since episode one.

It's a great show, and I'm glad its back.

Michael G. said...

It's funny you chose to compare Madeline to Chuck from "Chuck," because I was going to compare her to Ellie--the criminally underused actress on the show who's stuck playing a character that exists only to nag the hero.

It was nice to see Gless have a chance to do something else.

rhys said...

Hoosier Paul - I agree with other commenters that you would not be lost picking up the show. The overarching plot is extremely simple and is summed up in the opening credits.

The show is the perfect double whammy. Clever plot lines and great relationship dynamics between the characters. It is really the relationships that set it apart from any other "adventure" type show.

W. Blake Gray said...

I was disappointed by this episode for a couple of reasons:

1) Another hidden omniscient big-baddie, with no real progress from the previous ones. This is why I stopped watching 24.

2) The ending was maudlin. Alan, you seemed to like it, but it struck me as old-style 3-network sappiness. "I have to help people." Boo hoo.

I also didn't buy the long car chase with the heavy city vehicle. If it went on that long, wouldn't that vehicle turn, slow down, brake or something?

I have really enjoyed this series in the past, but I think this episode was weak.

The Sandy Llama said...

I was disappointed by this episode for a couple of reasons:

1) Another hidden omniscient big-baddie, with no real progress from the previous ones. This is why I stopped watching 24.


Given the fact that I enjoy the show as much as I do, I'm willing to wait and see where they're going with the burn notice/serial aspect of the show, but I agree with you in principle. At a certain point, Carla and Strickler filled the same kind of role. One would hope this new villain isn't just a slightly altered Victor, or I'd expect a little fan backlash.

I wonder, given the success of the show, if Nix/USA wouldn't be well served by an end date. Or, not a series finale type of end date, rather and end date for the 'burn' plot line.

Burn Notice isn't really a rich show, thematically, it's certainly not on the level of other awesome cable/premium stuff. 24 and, while others will disagree, Lost are kind of in the same boat. This type of show relies more on plot related ingenuity than it does, well, artfully developing characters/narrative and servicing larger themes in the way that the great HBO dramas did.

And, 24 and Lost are kind of proof that changing things up, deviating from a set formula, is the best way to go for this type of show. 24 has seen its critical acclaim erode since the first half of its first season. Lost rejuvenated itself entirely in that regard.

So, maybe, Nix should be developing the burn plot to an end point, not in the immediate term. But, over the course of the next few seasons. Michael can get back 'in', USA can give them a little money, Nix can write a 2-hour TV movie in which Michael engages in some international spy badassery and do what he wants to do.

I always thought, and I don't watch anymore, that Big Love was always building towards a 'Bill replaces Roman' thing in its serial arc. Just as I've always assumed Burn Notice is building towards a 'Michael becomes a real boy and finds value in human relationships' kind of thing, leading him to abandon his desires of getting back 'in'. Others may disagree, but I think you can hit that point and still continue the show. Just because a character has reached what appears to be a terminus (as McNulty did in Season 4 of The Wire) doesn't mean that there's no show left.

Anonymous said...

I know that shows like Burn Notice and Leverage require some character that can get whatever information is necessary to run an operation, and that that's primarily why Sam is on the team ("I've got a buddy...."). And I also realize that this is one of the points that usually requires a significant suspension of disbelief by the viewer (because the information is always available, the computers are never down, the right person is not on vacation or off sick on the day they need it) but I was disappointed last night that we didn't get to watch Sam (or more likely Chuck Finley) fail to charm the info out of Tyne Daly's character. She didn't come off as particularly officious, but they wrote her as needy and lonely, someone who would seem to be a perfect target for Sam's legendary ability to woo lonely women. And then they have Madeline waltz in and get the information they need with a sniffle and a few tears. I just didn't buy it.

That said, I thought the blackmail scene worked well, although given the job security that most civil servants have, I'm not sure the threat of firing would have scared a real state employee all that much (think of how often they must hear it).

I'm glad the show is back, and I enjoyed the episode. I just think the writers deprived us of a moment of comedy gold...the opportunity to see a rare Finley fail.

dez said...

That said, I thought the blackmail scene worked well, although given the job security that most civil servants have, I'm not sure the threat of firing would have scared a real state employee all that much (think of how often they must hear it).


Given the current economic climate, I did buy her fear of losing her job. Plus, it came from someone she trusted as a friend.

Anonymous said...

I generally enjoy the show, both the spy aspect as well as the interpersonal dynamics. That being said, I agree with W. Blake Gray above. It strained credibility that they would be able to find a city vehicle 2 minutes before the precise crossing time, in close proximity to the crossing point, and then corral it with four vehicles. I too was thinking that wouln't the driver of 10 ton truck turn or slow down since he is on the winning side of the physics equation. The one consistant knock I have about car chases on this show are that the streets are always empty and you end with these huge empty boulevards. I am nostalgic for the car chases of the 80's (Magnum, Simon & Simon, Hunter) where there would be actually traffic and weaving around cars and pedestrians. For all the slickness BN has on the spy stuff, I think the car chases are their weak point.

Jim said...

but I was disappointed last night that we didn't get to watch Sam (or more likely Chuck Finley) fail to charm the info out of Tyne Daly's character.

Huh. That never occurred to me, but that was a hell of a scene they passed on. Could've been a hoot to watch. I guess either a) they were determined to show her in a reunion in her first scene or b) they couldn't write it.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I am nostalgic for the car chases of the 80's (Magnum, Simon & Simon, Hunter) where there would be actually traffic and weaving around cars and pedestrians.

I'd say that's one of the concessions Burn Notice has to make to its basic cable budget. More cars = more time + difficulty + money. I'm impressed by how the show stretches a dollar as it is.

Frederick said...

Thank God you are back Burn Notice - its been too long!

Karen said...

That closing scene with Maddy and Michael was wonderful. I liked how Gless played it without makeup or good hair--she really looked racked by guilt and self-loathing. And I thought it was important both for her to understand what Michael's life is really like (it might help her to come to terms with his long disappearance) and also for Michael truly to examine why he does what he now does. I doubt he had that kind of clarity before he got burned.

This was just a fabulous episode. And Donovan got his Southern boy persona down cold, for a change.

Zach said...

VERJOYED to see the comic timing still tickng in Miami! After the crushing disappointment of the Chuck return this reader was beginning to despair..

Two tiny but very entertaining nits to pick, with a show that is clearly still so tight and careful:

-- Stiches scene: Fun and funny welcome back comedy moment, but come on! These superheroes can lay hands on every exotic armament, timer switch and high tech stable explosive imaginable.. but not Lidocaine. Really.

-- Bubba Michael spits to underline his character as he is leaving the job interview: Spits clear. Kids, that is NOT what chaw spit looks like. I guess they decided that bit of versimilitude from the Yogurt Avenger could be too confusing for new viewers of the series to take LOL

Media Reviews said...

You gotta admit, Burn Notice, Psych, even White Collar are better than pretty much most of the tripe that won awards at the Globes, SAGs and Emmy's.

And it's baffling NBC doesn't air this show on their network.

Mark said...

Am I the only one who was completely unaware that the show was back? I really didn't hear anything.
I am glad that I check out this blog frequently so I can watch or DVR it tonight.

Mark said...

Watched it last night. Enjoyed it very much.
I sympathize with the writers because the burn notice issue seems to be played out, but if they resolve it, it kinds of trumps the very premise of the show, which after all is called "Burn Notice."
I liken it to HIMYM, where the story line about Ted meeting his future wife has dragged on and is less relevant, but the show is called "How I met Your Mother"
The writers have to walk a fine line.