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Matt Nix's Burn Notice purports to be all about the burned spy who informs us at the beginning of every episode that his "name is Michael Westen." However, to fans who've been tuning into the show since its launch in the summer of 2007, the series is equally mysterious in making us want to learn more about the everyman charm of its mostly unknown lead actor Jeffrey Donovan who's been realistically bringing Michael to life alongside veterans Gabrielle Anwar (Scent of a Woman, Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken) and Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead, My Name is Bruce) in the USA network smash.
And a bit of digging revealed that Donovan-- who I realized I had indeed seen in a few indie sleepers-- boasts a refreshingly grounded and integrity filled hard work pays off storyline in his real life rising from poverty to receiving a degree from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Likewise it's also Donovan's skill in three kinds of martial arts combined with the sense that he just seems to instinctively get Nix's original and seriously dry humor (which a friend described to Nix as a show that sounds "like talking to you for forty-two minutes") that provides him with precisely the right skills needed to make you give a damn about Westen.
For in someone else's hands, Michael Westen could simply be just another cool-as-ice spy coming in from the cold (or being forced into the warm as it so happens on this show) but there's something about Donovan that makes you buy him as a much more with it version of the everyman and any man out to uncover the truth behind the spy game's version of a pink slip via the show's title.
And Burn Notice-- currently airing weekly on Thursday nights for its newly kicked off third season-- has become "the number one show in all of cable television." Likewise it utilizes-- as the incredibly talented creator and main writer Matt Nix explains on the season two Blu-ray featurette NIXin It Up-- a newer take on the classic spy drama by interjecting agressive action, unique editing (split screens, character description cards that change from "Fiona's Boyfriend" to "Fiona's Ex-Boyfriend" after a line of dialogue is uttered) and of course that wonderful throughline of Donovan's running narration.
Beginning with the same "My name is Michael Westen" self-deprecating opener that precedes every episode thereby allowing new viewers to catch up every week and join its legions of fans-- the second season of Burn Notice seamlessly picks up the thread of the previous storyline.
And although I hadn't seen every single episode, it's fairly easy to catch up with the series as the debut season ended in what would become its great cliffhanger style as Michael underwent an extreme leap of faith by giving up his beloved need for controlling every variable in order to discover more about the individual or organization who burned the former CIA operative and relegated him to Miami.
Always ensuring that we're never completely lost a la J.J. Abrams' overly complicated Alias, Westen's postmodern narration (which gives him the pleasant and refreshing yet believable twist to be insanely chatty for his line of work) is one I've joked you could make a drinking game out of given the number of times he starts a sentence with "when you're a spy" or "as a spy," or the like. However, it's his "when you're spy" style of saying it like it's "when you're a plumber" that sets the show apart from the far too smooth world of 007 within seconds.
Moreover by this point, Westen’s memorable introduction has become much more than just a staple of the series. In fact, his ongoing narration throughout the show has evolved into a Burn Notice trademark in its own right. Likewise it's one that’s actually just as important as not simply the chemistry of the show’s main trio of actors (Donovan, Gabrielle Anwar and Bruce Campbell), but it also serves as the ideal partner to Burn’s sexy, fast-paced cinematic visuals to ingeniously counter the explosions, chases, and gun-play in the Miami setting.
Unexpectedly tongue-in-cheek and filled with dryly funny observations, blithely acerbic throwaway spy-speak that makes explosives and torture sound like gardening tips and kitchen recipes-- it’s via Nix's natural ability as a wickedly clever screenwriter to underplay the rather extraordinary events that give the show its wholly original spin of letting you inside the rather strange landscape of spies and ex-spies.
And of course, as established earlier-- the show focus on one ex-spy in particular with Donovan’s tremendously acted Michael Westen. For Westen-- now cut off from his old employer of the US government-- has teamed up with his “trigger happy ex-girlfriend,” in the form of the stunningly beautiful IRA trained explosives expert Fiona (unfortunately minus the accent she nailed in her audition video contained as a season one DVD extra) along with the scene-stealing and humorous “washed-up military intelligence contact” Sam (Bruce Campbell, basically playing a subtle variation of “Bruce Campbell”).
Rounding out the three unlikely weapons-brandishing amigos which provide sexual tension (via Michael and Fi) and great collaborative humor (via Sam and anyone sharing the same frame) is Michael's memorable mother played by Sharon Gless who drags him to mother/son therapy with her in a great running gag in season two. Yet the nice twist about the dysfunctional mother angle is in the fact that Westen actually loves his mom and in turn trusts her throughout by using her home as a hideout for clients in trouble who need saving and by getting Sam or Fiona to check up on her or take her out of town if he finds himself in trouble.
And now with a firmer sense of what-- as Matt Nix explains-- a traditional episode of the series contains, in the second season he begins to do "flip floppers" by playing against audience expectation in some of the season's standout episodes that avoid the basic set-up. Trying to ensure that it won't just become a standard episodic formula which has plagued its fellow USA Network neighbors including the still amusing but far too predictable Pscyh as well as Monk which passed its expiration date two seasons back-- while season three of Burn is promised to really change up Westen's plot-lines to more serious effect, we see the beginning roots of it in this new set from Fox Blu-ray.
Overall consistently strong throughout-- some of the season's highlights can be found via the WGA nominated surprisingly twist-filled episode "Double Booked" which finds the assumed evil spy "Dead Larry" very much alive and trying to hire Michael to assassinate a local woman. Deciding to take the job in order to sabotage it, he sends Fiona in to protect the woman, much to Fiona's chagrin since in an attempt to drive Michael insane with jealousy she's taken up with a handsome paramedic named Campbell whose name Michael keeps forgetting by noting "who?" when Fiona asks him for his opinion.
When Michael learns that the assassination was double booked, their job to rescue the would-be target becomes increasingly complex as in addition to this new plot, Michael is double booked on another level while trying to learn more about this season's great nemesis played by actress Tricia Helfer in her role as Carla whose organization is most likely behind Michael's burn.
In the best episode of the season and the one directed by Matt Nix and incidentally casting his young son-- "Do No Harm"-- after Michael barely manages to survive an attempt on his life, he becomes increasingly unhinged, getting emotionally involved in a case of a scammed father who'd been trying to save his chronically ill son's life.
Injecting the series with some real emotion blended of course with Nix's humor that's always just below the surface via the perpetually yogurt consuming spies-- the three ignore the rule of never getting too close by breaking their usual modus operandi and letting the villains have it before they fully realize what the next play is or who may be higher up on the ladder.
When you couple these "flip floppers" this with the exceptional "Bad Breaks" which finds Michael reunited with an amoral agent from the first season only to find both men stuck inside a bank robbery which breaks up the group dynamic putting Fiona and Sam in the position of Michael on the outside whereas Michael is far less free than usual trying to do what he can out-numbered and out-gunned inside the building, you have a memorable season all around. And staying true to the Michael in jeopardy conclusion-- Nix adds in a finale that literally finds our hero plummeting into the unknown making this collection the ultimate tie-in to the new season.
In fact, it's such a great refresher of the season (which USA had split in half with the first few episodes running last summer and the rest airing earlier in the year) that I was stunned Fox and USA hadn't gotten together beforehand to release it to fans in time for the start of the brand new episodes.
Featuring a much funnier gag reel than the one from the first season, some interesting audio commentaries and deleted scenes yet unfortunately aside from the "Do No Harm" Matt Nix featurette zero other extras-- the Blu-ray set offers superior clarity to the DVDs from season one which will make you want to upgrade as soon as that set's released.
However, and in a rare exception for the normally astounding perfection of Fox Blu-ray, in some of the close-up scenes you still see some grain and soft color in the flesh tones which was surprising for a new release-- although once you tweak the settings of your display into Cinema or a Custom mode that de-emphasizes any unrealistic vivid brightness, it looks much smoother and sleeker than before.
But when you add this to an inability to bookmark scenes in the episode to pick up where you left off as well as a hard to navigate menu that has you struggling to move from one episode to the next with dots as though we were staring at dice in small lettering amidst the large backdrop-- I wasn't as blown away by the move to Blu-ray as I thought I'd be despite of course noting the improvement in quality from the premiere season on DVD.
Still, despite a few design flaws added in with the overwhelming length it took for the Blu-ray to actually load on a new high quality Sony Blu-ray player with the latest firmware-- as a fan of the show, I was just thrilled to feel the Burn in any format and will solidly recommend it-- Blu-ray hiccups and all-- due to the superbly brainy, funny, action packed, and ingenious content of one of the best shows currently airing on television.
For as Michael might say--when you're a spy, you need to learn to overlook some of the technical annoyances that threaten to throw the op off balance and just remain focused on the final target.