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 V.16 No.28 | July 12 - 18, 2007 

Idiot Box

Spy Hard

“Burn Notice” on USA

I can’t say, honestly, there’s anything original about USA’s new action series “Burn Notice.” The plot about of a pink-slipped spy who finds himself out of work and stumbles into a life of helping random needy strangers with his special detective/spy/crimefighting skills isn’t markedly different than “The A-Team,” “MacGyver,” “Airwolf,” “The Equalizer” or pretty much any action series that aired on network television during the ’80s. But oddly enough, it’s this sense of nostalgic familiarity that makes “Burn Notice” such an enjoyable TV treat.

Jeffrey Donovan (“Crossing Jordan,” “Touching Evil”) stars as Michael Westen, a former government operative who has been fired for unknown reasons and is now ostracized by his former colleagues. Drifting back to his old hometown of Miami, Michael finds himself hanging out with his partially senile mother (Sharon Gless, who spent most of the ’80s as traditional TV cop Christine Lacey on “Cagney & Lacey”) and going slightly stir crazy.

Urged by his mom to “help out” a neighbor who has had her identity stolen by con men, Michael takes up the mantle of freelance do-gooder. With no money and no resources, Michael recruits two of his spy-biz pals, an ex-IRA agent (not to mention former girlfriend) named Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar, “The Tudors”) and a slovenly information broker named Sam (Bruce Campbell, Evil Dead).

With its breezy sense of humor, lightweight action, roguish cast of characters and colorful tropical setting, “Burn Notice” resembles nothing if not vintage “Magnum, P.I.” Again, the nostalgic comparison is a compliment. “Burn Notice” is not as dramatically heavy as “The Shield” and its not as comically irritating as “Monk”but it’s a consistently fun affair.

This balancing act is helped along by the strong cast. Gless adds some solid support as Michael’s dotty-but-wise mom. Campbell is an always welcome comic presence, contributing to his first regular series since “Jack of All Trades” went off the air in 2001. Donovan has the trickiest task, bringing life to the stoic but resourceful Michael. Our protagonist provides a running narration that reads like an unwritten instruction book on how to be a spy. (Bathrooms, for example, are a good place to fight because they provide plenty of hard surfaces on which to slam opponents.) The narration is another nod to “Magnum, P.I.,” but it does a great job of establishing our hero’s demeanor. He’s not driven by revenge or money or righteousness. He’s not really a people person. He’s just a guy who’s talented and efficient at what he does. Having been booted from the only thing he knows how to do, he’s at a bit of a loss. He’s also a tad confused. Why was he fired? And why are assorted teams of spooks still shadowing him? This mystery gives “Burn Notice” an intriguing backbone of conspiracy to fill in gaps between the low-impact mysteries presented each week.

Don’t sweat the overly familiar concept. Concentrate on the charismatic cast, the dry humor and the effortless fun everyone seems to be having on screen and “Burn Notice” is a blast.

“Burn Notice” airs every Thursday at 8 p.m. on USA.

 

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