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Burn Notice: "Friends and Enemies"

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I kind of feel like Burn Notice needs to go away for a while. This isn't a statement on the show's quality. Despite a pretty messy third season, I still enjoy it for the most part. I think the action sequences continue to be among the best on TV, and the hard-boiled dialogue is often a lot of fun. And when I watched the fourth season premiere tonight, I was excited for something that was supposed to take the show back to its roots, to when it ably balanced case of the week storylines and an overarching, serialized storyline about Michael Westen investigating just why he was burned and what it meant for himself and those in his life. Yet, I couldn't really get myself worked up for it. It's only been gone since March, after all.

Now, obviously, what I'm saying is ludicrous. When the show has its finale every summer, all involved have to wait until January for it to come back, which is a longer gap than we have to sit through for most network shows. But the midseason finale is necessarily a less exciting cliffhanger than the end-of-season cliffhanger, and because of the weird way USA spaces out its 16 episodes, you never have to wait all that long to find out what happened. So when Michael dove out of that helicopter back in March of 2009, it wasn't that long of a wait to find out what happened, and I think that robbed the moment of some of its power and helped increase the feeling that season three was as scattershot as it was. Pacing is a big part of TV, and by putting Burn Notice on at two different points in the year, I think USA is robbing it of … something.

This isn't exactly the world's most thought out thesis, but it might explain why I was mostly nonplussed with what was a mainly enjoyable fourth season premiere of the show. Now, part of that may have to do with the way that the plot lurched back and forth, as though everyone involved in writing the episode got to a certain point, then realized abruptly that they needed a case of the week. Honestly, it might have worked better to ease the other characters back into the storyline, to devote a full episode to finding out just what Michael found in the study and the people there who want to co-opt his particular skills. Because the introduction to this secretive organization of burned spies is well-done, and then the first mission between Michael and Vaughn (or Bunny, if you will) is to track down an arms dealer, which leads to some information that he's working with the government somehow (or something).

And then the show abruptly shifted to something else entirely. Michael was back in Miami as abruptly as he was taken away from it, and he was back with Fiona and Sam, and they were taking on a mission, and it was like nothing had ever changed. Look. I get the impulse to do this, and I get why the show wanted to get back to its bread and butter as soon as possible. But you couldn't have gone at this in a different way? Michael couldn't have been in incarceration for a while longer? Fiona and Sam couldn't have worked to try to free him? You couldn't have even given over an episode to that? I'm sure that everything with Vaughn is going to come back to bite Michael in the ass sooner, rather than later, and I'm sure it will be cool, but the way the show gets itself into and then out of this scenario feels a little too deus ex machina to me. (Though if you have to have a deus ex machina on your TV show, you can do a lot worse than recruiting an actor from The Wire.)

Anyway, Michael was back with Fiona and Sam, and they had to help Harry Crane from Mad Men escape a biker gang, whom he had been defending a hapless woman from by helping said woman escape from them. The dude who wanted Harry's blood (and I refuse to call him by his non-Mad Men name) was Hunter, and Hunter and everybody else in his group felt sort of like a leftover from Sons of Anarchy, as though the show really wanted to do something rough and tumble and then couldn't bring itself to do so, not really. The biker gang is portrayed rather haphazardly here, with all of their menace going toward over-the-top cartooniness, and while I thought every time the bikers got on their bikes and took off after Michael (and I liked the way things escalated as Michael kept trying to keep them under control near episode's end), it was exciting, I also wanted there to be something more to it than seedy leftovers from an episode of The Equalizer.

Yeah, yeah. That's Burn Notice's raison d'etre. It's going to take modern serialization and attach it to '80s action TV and make a nice, fizzy summer cocktail. For the most part, it works. And I'm not going to say that this episode didn't work either. I'm interested to see where things go from here, particularly with Vaughn, and I liked the way the show played out its final moments (about which more in a minute), but the biker stuff felt so by the numbers that it never achieved the kind of liftoff the best Burn Notice repurposing of '80s action beats does. And it certainly doesn't help that the show bails out of that opening plotline as quickly as it does.


But the series gets at something interesting in its last moments, as Michael has a nice, genuinely emotional moment with Maddy and then he and Fiona go to a government facility and he leads to the burning of another spy. I'm sure that this is going to pay off (possibly with Michael conscripting said spy), and I really liked the horror on Michael's face when Sam told him just what he had done. It's a nice end to the episode, and it's another suggestion that the master plot this season will be tighter than it was last season.

And, obviously, that's something the show needed. The third season's attempts to first make a serialized plot that didn't make any sense work and then its attempts to force a serialized plot onto episodes that weren't really calling out for one hurt some episodes with some fun standalone elements. So if the show is going to skew toward making the serialized stuff make more sense, that's something I can support. But I do think it needs a more solid foundation than whatever this biker plotline was. It had its moments (and Rich Sommer is always fun), but a few car chases does not a storyline make.


Stray observations:

  • Zack is otherwise occupied this evening, so I'm here. He'll be taking on Futurama when it returns on the 24th, so I may be taking over the show full-time. I swear that I like it usually!
  • I liked the way that the show hooked up Michael with Sam and Fiona again. It was a winning and exhilarating moment, and it captured some of what makes the show so much fun when it's clicking. Also fun: Fiona smacking Michael around.
  • "I have a loaded machine gun pistol in my hand, and I have no idea what I'm doing."
  • "And if things go bad?" "Well, it was nice seeing you guys again."