“Breaking and Entering”
July 9th, 2008
USA Today’s Robert Bianco, having seen the first two episodes of Burn Notice’s sophomore season, has fairly harsh words for what he views as the show’s shift in tone with the arrival of a more serialized plot development:
So what’s gone wrong? Like so many series today, Burn Notice has overburdened a fragile structure with a weighty continuing story…Unfortunately, the added depth has made the show less interesting, not more. And the time spent on the continuing story means the episodes’ capers are woefully underdeveloped.
However, after watching the premiere, I don’t really understand where he’s coming from here. He seems to argue that the tone of the series has been irrevocably changed from its previous standards, but the show was well within its comfort zone for the entire hour. Burn Notice is a show built on its clever set pieces, its charming interaction between Jeffrey Donovan and his wingpeople (Gabrielle Anwar and Bruce Campbell), and a tone that maintains humour while retaining consequence.
And if anything, the latest bump in the road for Michael Weston does all of these things – even if his trips to see his mother remain as pointless as they’ve ever been, Michael being held hostage by Tricia Helfer’s Carla is no more or less dramatic or grave than last season’s various individuals hired to kill our protagonist. For him to completely skirt the obvious danger that a burned agent as himself would be in would be much too unbelieveable.
The show has never been all about accuracy or tonal consistency, rarely proving a slave to what Bianco calls “comedy-tinged mystery.” And while I won’t argue the point that there are dangerous roads to be followed, I will argue that Burn Notice has not taken that exit: it’s still a fun and enjoyable summer series.
I think much of Bianco’s frustration could come from our opening scene: as we catch up with Michael after he drives the Buick into the back of a cargo truck, he opens the door to find a destroyed plane and two armed guards lying dead on the ground. The woman on the phone, who identifies herself as Carla, is implied to be behind the murder of at least a few people. This is a dark opening, and we haven’t seen quite this level of outright murder on the show before – in this sense, I can understand the shift.
However, it’s not as if Michael is asked to kill Jimmy, who is tied up on the ground. Rather, he is asked to help him retrieve data from a security company – in other words, the type of task that Michael might have done for anyone, just in this case for a woman who is at least somewhat related to the eponymous notice. The end of last season foreshadowed that Michael was making a sacrifice in terms of re-engaging with his previous life, and I will admit that I would have liked to see more of that. Weston is such a cool and relaxed character in high-pressure situations that his reaction to the death and destruction is like it’s another day at the office, which I don’t think is the show’s intention.
And while the framework for his actions may have changed, the series itself hasn’t. We still have the same “How-to” segments, we still have the same violent but sexually charged interaction between Michael and Fiona, and Bruce Campbell’s Sam is as he ever was. But I don’t really find the problem with this: yes, the frame is more serious and dramatic, but it actually gives weight to Michael’s actions.
And he needs that weight. Bianco notes in his review that USA has trouble maintaining series, citing Monk and Psych as examples. However, I have to say that the shifts in Burn Notice’s second season are sending the series in the opposite direction; while silliness did envelop those shows to the point that I lost all interest, Burn Notice is diversifying and maintaining its character’s dramatic elements through long-term storylines. Monk lost my interest when it stopped paying attention to his wife’s passing: it was a driving force that humanized and explained some of his neuroses, and when it disappeared it became a pure comedy series.
This is a drama series, albeit one that does involve a lot of comedy. There was some chatter during the Emmy Awards process, after Sharon Gless broke into the Top 11 for Supporting Actress – Drama, that the show had been classified in the wrong category. But my view is that the protagonist drives the classification, and Michael Weston’s story is a dramatic one. Yes, the show is fun and light, but at its core is a dramatic centerpiece, a story about a man who is in search of answers.
On that level, the premiere was a bit slow: Michael did transition a bit too quickly into this task without much consideration of the ramifications. As his various partners in crime slowly came out of the woodwork (Sam crashing at his apartment, Fiona frustrated with his nonchalant return after their emotional farewell, his Mother calling from the hotel in Ft. Lauderdale), Michael’s business-like attitude was as frustrating for me as it was for Fiona.
But I felt that the task itself, securing the files and then framing the security company for the murders at the beginning of the episode, was a piece of sharp work from creator Matt Nix. If you’re going to run a serial story like this, it needs to integrate with the mystery at hand: here, the guns from the earlier murder played an important role in the final ruse. This felt like the right balance, and although the guest acting was as average as ever I felt it packed in a lot of material.
Between Michael’s Aussie accent, to the quick-thinking gun battle started by a piece of tin foil, to the daring heist, and to the exploding boat, it felt like just enough of an event while maintaining the usual dialect the series’ action tends to take. Like any good premiere, it felt like something bigger than its usual self, and did a strong job of extending the previous season’s storyline.
But where it goes from here is an important and curious question, and by Bianco’s impressions the second episode is more of the same. In my view, I’d be perfectly fine with that: murders or no murders, the show’s damn entertaining.
- I love Tricia Helfer on Battlestar Galactica, and I think that her voice work is a good choice in terms of the mysterious Carla. Her brief appearance at episode’s end was nicely understated, so it is clear that this isn’t one of her various Number Six incarnations transported into another series. We haven’t yet seen much in terms of performance from her, but I’m looking forward to seeing her sink her teeth into this role once she gets a bit more dramatic potential.
- I would like to thank USA for the “Previously on…” segment at the opening of the episode – it’s been a long time since that last episode, and I had completely forgotten what had happened. These summer shows have a tendency to create such forgetfulness, so I really hope that others follow suit (Mainly Damages, I think I can remember Mad Men well enough).