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Our New Favorite Show

I remember (not fondly) when the secondary cable channels could be relied on for achingly bad movies, long stretches of infomercials, and even dead air. How times have changed when networks like USA, TNT, and SciFi Channel are putting out original programming that illuminates the alpha networks for the has-been schlubs that they really are. Nor do they apparently have itchy trigger fingers like those unspeakable bastards over at Fox, and actually give a show more than an episode and a half to find its audience.USA Network has found a guaranteed audience in us for a new show called Burn Notice. The main character, Michael Westen, is a CIA contractor who has been “burned” (basically fired, assets frozen, etc. etc.), dumped in Miami, and watched constantly by the FBI. His mother just happens to live in Miami, as does his only friend, an ex-spy played by a disturbingly swelled Bruce Campbell. His ex-IRA ex-girlfriend (played by Gabrielle Anwar) is also in town, with her passing fondness for Molotov cocktails. With no access to bank accounts, nor conventionally marketable skills, Michael winds up taking the odd job here and there helping people with their drug cartel-, dishonest employer-, con artist-type problems. He has the mad spy skillz, with some MacGyver-esque capabilities thrown in, to make him the perfect guy to call when the law (and/or law-abiding) can’t really help. But exactly why Michael Westen is now in a position to help the downtrodden of Miami is the big question. Someone signed the burn notice on him, specifically had him delivered to Miami, and has the FBI breathing down his neck. As each episode progresses, he gets another little piece of that puzzle.

The show moves fast, has lots of quick cuts, and a fun voice-over that is probably the best use of that device I’ve ever seen. Sure, it’s expositional, but it’s also used skillfully to emphasize the visuals, and is the source of much of the sly humor. The characters are fundamentally human, there are things you both like and dislike about them. Bruce Campbell’s ex-spy Sam is informing on Michael to the FBI, ostensibly just for the free lunches, and only what Michael tells him to pass along, but how trustworthy is he, really? Fiona, the ex-IRA girlfriend, is apparently happy to help Michael in every way she can, but is she just insinuating herself back into his life for her own profit? Michael himself is a broken individual, much in the way Martin Blank is broken, but with FAR less neuroses. Like Martin, Michael ran away from an abusive father to join the Army, and from there became a spy/assassin/whathaveyou. He loved his job, was very good at it, and is determined to get back in. Whomever is pulling the strings seems intent on making him over into an actual functioning human being, however.

Burn Notice is exceedingly well written, both in dialogue and tradecraft. From teaching a youngster how to disable the playground bully, to creating a motion detector that will send an alarm notice to a cell phone, the “lessons” in each episode are interesting, useful and highly entertaining. So, if you’re tired of the advertiser-approved dreck, or unending parade of nightmarish reality shows, churned out by the alpha networks each week, try your basic cable instead.