TV on DVD Review: Burn Notice -- Season Three (2009-2010)

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“Spies aren’t trained to fight fair; spies are trained to win,” former CIA operative Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) explains in season three’s opening episode “Friends and Family.” And just like a spy who wants to win-- Burn Notice has never fought fair, managing to challenge us in one of the smartest and most entertaining hours currently playing on television, which is easily evidenced in the sixteen episodes contained in its third season.

Utilizing the same “My name is Michael Westen,” self-deprecating narration that precedes every episode-- allowing new viewers to catch up every week and join the legions of fans that last summer made this incredibly hip non-traditional spy series the number one show in all of cable television-- Burn Notice seamlessly picks up the thread of the previous storyline.

Yet 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. Likewise it's one that’s actually just as important as not simply the chemistry of the show’s lead 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 the screenplay’s ability 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, the show focus on one burned spy in particular with Donovan’s tremendously acted Michael Westen. 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 (Scent of a Woman’s Gabrielle Anwar) alongside the scene-stealing and humorous “washed-up military intelligence contact” Sam (Bruce Campbell, basically playing a subtle variation of “Bruce Campbell”).

Free from both the water in which he plummeted at the end of season two as well as “from interference by the organization that burned him,” Michael’s troubles are far from over as he still freelances to get by alongside a much feistier and far more flirtatious and emotionally invested Fiona as well as Sam, who’s currently residing with Michael’s mother Madeline (Sharon Gless) to help repair her still mostly blown up home.

When an old friend appears out of the woodwork requesting Westen’s assistance, he accepts the job despite Fiona’s suspicions which results in action galore from a high-kicking fight, a fall from a glass window, and one massive truck explosion.

Unfortunately however, when big things go “boom,” it’s hard for the local law enforcement to look the other way and Michael finds a new nemesis in the form of a twisted “stalker with a badge,” Miami Police Detective Michelle Paxson (Terminator Salvation’s Moon Bloodgood).

To this end, Paxson dedicates all of her efforts to putting a stop to Michael, Fiona, and Sam’s extracurricular faux law enforcement activities. Nearly right after she's introduced, she busts Fi for bounty hunting without a license, harasses everyone Michael is or has ever been associated with, drags him into the station for endless questioning in a strange interplay that hints she may be attracted to her suspect, and prompts the group to try and hastily move a stash of C4 from a storage facility before the police warrant arrives.

Temporarily able to stay one step ahead of her, Burn Notice begins building into far more complicated plot structures with the second and third intricately written and breathlessly paced episodes “Question & Answer” and “End Run.”

Still annoyed that Paxson has cost Fiona a payday with her bounty, she quickly accepts a job to “knock some sense” into a woman’s husband and intervene in a domestic situation. Grudgingly Michael goes along much to the chagrin of his mother who’s planning to throw her son his first ever birthday party (forgetting that in sixth grade the one she remembered was for a different kid).

With the idea that Paxson could be trying to get into his C4 stash at anytime, the last thing Michael wants to do is play a heavy in a husband and wife custody disagreement but Fiona’s case takes a turn when the child involved is abducted and held for diamonds.

Employing Sam to impersonate a bad cop (which Michael gamely explains in his narration is much less work than playing a good one), they pull a controversial “reverse interrogation” technique where once again Michael is tortured to try and get information in the most puzzling of ways.

Incredibly violent yet unspeakably clever and easily one of the strongest episodes contained in the third season-- I was stunned when Nix and company decided to layer on even more perilous double-crosses and scores to settle in another hostage drama “End Run” that brings Michael’s brother Nate (Seth Peterson) back to the show.

Overall, Burn Notice is routinely at its best when it goes to great lengths to involve the three main cast mates in the same situation and even more so in episodes like “Question & Answer” when they layer several cases and angles into the roughly forty-two minute running time.

And as far as the new addition goes, it’s safe to say that Paxson will be around for awhile at least until they can figure out either what she wants or how to distract her enough aside from one humorous attempt to do so with finances in the third episode.

Likewise the sexual tension building once more between Michael and Fiona is getting as sultry as the Miami heat as we see just in the first few episodes alone and to his immense credit, Nix’s vision for the action drama is wonderfully still intact. Their relationship is tested as the season continues with Michael actively pursuing a way to get back into the good graces of the CIA to clear his name once and for all.

Even though it’s always a struggle to keep the tempo and plot-lines when one obstacle is pushed out of the way-- as Michael realizes he no longer needs to fear being foiled by the group that burned him-- admirably the shows seems to be incorporating new dilemmas in a believable way. And instead, this time around Michael encounters a whole new set of challenges when he meets two different men in each half of the show’s divided Summer/Winter season who are unaffiliated with the Management group we’d met previously.

Ingeniously introducing Ben Shankman as a new potential handler for the spy with the delivery of a basket of expensive yogurt, Michael is propositioned to align himself as an operative for hire with Shankman’s Tom Strickler who describes himself as an “Agent to the Spies.”

Reaching out to Michael to warn him – far too late—of impending danger from ticked off Ukrainians, Burn Notice is injected with some much-needed twists in the sixth episode “The Hunter,” which helps set events in motion from the standalone case-by-case style for instead what will become the ultimate payoff of the season as it careens towards its two bravura mid-season and end-season finales “Long Way Back” and “Devil You Know” that admirably give especially the female castmates of Burn far more to do than just back Michael up.

Although their roles had been growing far more substantial for quite sometime, it isn’t until we finally see Gless subtly interrogate a suspect that may know the whereabouts of Michael in “The Hunter,” go undercover herself and weigh the morality of lying to kind strangers in “A Dark Road,” and face intense FBI interrogation in “Devil You Know,” that we realize how integral a role she’s begun to play on an episodic basis than her previous and narratively introduced one as the comedic familial fodder.

Additionally by giving Fiona some perspective on what it’s like to have a “burn notice” after her IRA past catches up with her and she’s outed as an American patriot in “Long Way Back,” the screenwriters ensure that the unexpectedly tender evolution of her relationship with Michael which comes to a head in “Friendly Fire” feels particularly poignant and well-earned.

And while Burn Notice still makes irresistible fun that’s especially ideal for escapist summer entertainment thanks to its sense of humor intermingled with all of the action and ingenuity, for loyal audiences who’ve been actively watching from the beginning and are therefore completely caught up in its increasingly complicated mythology, the third season marks a bold transition into darker territory that exists more in the gray area than previous white hat/black hat standalone classic installments.

Similarly season three brilliantly sets up the fourth season with one humdinger of a cliffhanger which will make you rush to record the brand new episodes currently airing on USA Network. By thrilling you with the arrival of a man who is possibly Burn Notice’s most evil villain thus far and a chilling final sequence cleverly executed by creator Matt Nix that leaves our charming hero in jeopardy sans sidekicks, it’s precisely the right time to dive into Fox’s DVD release.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.