Keith R.A. DeCandido (kradical) wrote,
Keith R.A. DeCandido

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Couch Potato Salad: Burn Notice

From an "In Review" episode of The Chronic Rift podcast that went live in October, my "Couch Potato Salad" segment, which reviews the end of Burn Notice:

Hi, I'm Keith R.A. DeCandido—who has almost caught up on sleep from Dragon Con—and this is Couch Potato Salad, a critical look at genre television.

Burn Notice just ended its run after seven seasons. For five seasons, it was a delightful show, a fun romp about a former CIA operative named Michael Westen, played by Jeffrey Donovan, who is given a "burn notice," which leaves him without resources and stuck in Miami. The average episode was split between an A-plot of him using his mad spy skillz to help someone who needed it, and a continuing set of B-plots that had him trying to deal with the burn notice in some form or other. He was aided by a superb supporting cast that included Gabrielle Anwar as his slightly crazy ex-IRA girlfriend, Bruce Campbell as his smartass ex-Navy SEAL best friend, Sharon Gless as his chain-smoking pain-in-the-neck mother, and, starting in season 4, Coby Bell as another ex-spy who gets sucked into Michael's crazy life.

In the sixth season, it all went into the toilet. Michael's brother Nate was killed, and after that Michael and his supporting cast got framed and caught up in a conspiracy involving Michael's training officer in the CIA, Tom Card—played beautifully by John C. McGinley—who was responsible for Nate's death. The middle of the season had Michael shooting Card in the head, and then running away.

From that point on, two things happened: First, the show gave up the two-track format. Michael stopped helping people and was purely concerned with saving his own ass. Second, Michael stopped being in any way a sympathetic or heroic character. Up until he shot Card, he was a hero. Even though he kept focusing on getting back in the CIA to the exclusion of all else for no compellingly good reason (he obviously got more satisfaction out of helping normal people, but he'd been a CIA operative so long it was second nature), he still ultimately was a good person caught up in a crummy situation.

That all ceased the microsecond he shot Card in the head and then ran away. For the rest of the sixth season, he was a fugitive, being chased by a CIA agent named Riley—played by the magnificent Sonja Sohn—and as I'm watching it, I'm rooting for Riley, because the first rule for anyone who is issued a firearm is that when you discharge it, you throw the weapon down and then account for why you fired it. That goes double for when you discharge it into a person and triple when that person is a high-ranking CIA operative. There is no planet on which running away makes sense unless you're psychotic.

To make matters worse, the writers recognized this and so had to shoehorn a corruption scandal into the character of Riley at the last possible second in order to make her into the bad guy. You know what? I didn't buy it. There was nothing in the character of Olivia Riley to justify her sudden descent in the season finale into corruption, and it was so obviously done due to a belated realization that Michael wasn't in any way, shape, or form sympathetic at this point.

I only stuck with the show after that point because it was announced that the seventh season would be the last. I was sufficiently engaged with the characters (well, aside from the lead) that I curious to see how it would end.

The seventh season was mildly engaging—more so to see Michael's entire life fall apart and watch him try to reconstruct it. In particular, the deep-cover assignment he goes on is compelling viewing. Plus the final season continued the trend of superb guest stars. This is a show that has had recurring roles for Moon Bloodgood, Jere Burns, Alex Carter, Garrett Dillahunt, Tricia Helfer, Kenneth Johnson, Jay Karnes, John Mahoney, Tim Matheson, Richard Schiff, Michael Shanks, Ben Shenkman, Lauren Stamile, Robert Wisdom, the aforementioned McGinley and Sohn, and lots more. The final season added Adrian Pasdar, Alona Tal, Jack Coleman, and John Pyper-Ferguson to the list, and they were all a joy to watch work.

But ultimately, I had a case of the galloping I-don't-give-a-damns because Michael wasn't a character I cared much about anymore. I liked watching Burn Notice when it was about a spy who was trying to be a hero. When it became about a spy trying to be a better spy, I lost interest. The show still had Bruce Campbell being awesome, and honestly I'd love to watch the spinoff where Campbell's Sam Axe and Coby Bell's Jesse Porter help people in Miami out while drinking lots of beer and stuff. But to my mind, Burn Notice ended two seasons too late.

Burn Notice has stopped airing on USA, but it's being rerun here and there, including on the "My" network of syndicated stations, and, of course, is available on DVD.

Finally, we have Cathode to Joy, where I praise a show in fifteen seconds or less: Sons of Anarchy is back on F/X Tuesday nights. That is all.

For The Chronic Rift I'm Keith R.A. DeCandido with "Couch Potato Salad."

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