I don't watch a lot of television, but I don't mind saying that I'm practically addicted to USA Network's Burn Notice. Not only is it great television, it's good writing, and fantastic storytelling. Today we're going to take a look at it from a writer's perspective and break down some things that make the show "work" as well as it does.
The basic premise of the show is that Michael Westen, a CIA operative, has been "burned." This is explained in each show's brief opening: When you're burned, you've got nothing. No cash, no credit, no job history. The Agency has written him off and left him, stranded, in Miami. Being a former spy gets you on a few "no fly" lists, so he's stuck. He relies on three major characters to survive: his on-again, off-again "trigger happy ex-girlfriend" and former IRA member, Fiona Glenanne; his womanizing, retired Navy Seal bosom-buddy Sam Axe who informs on him to the FBI; and his mother, Madeline Westen.
That tells you what you need to know about the show, but it barely scratches the surface. There are four categories of storytelling that make Burn Notice so enjoyable for a writer to watch.
The cornerstone of any decent story is conflict, and Burn Notice has it by the shovelful. Not only is there a global story arc, Michael getting burned, but in almost every episode he helps someone. Whether it's simple private investigator work, thwarting a kidnapping, recovering stolen goods, or counter-assassination, Michael (with Fi and Sam's help) is constantly busy saving someone's ass either for money or out of pure, moral necessity.
This also lends itself well to the show's episodic nature. While it is, of course, best to follow the story from end to end, each "job" Michael takes along the way nearly always provides a satisfying resolution by episode's end. Each season brings him closer to resolving the burn notice, while the end of each season leaves a bitter reminder that it's not going to be so simple. Characters, both virtuous and villainous, move in and out of the show with charming efficacy (more on this later).
The bottom line is that, just like any book series worth its salt, there is a global conflict that the main character progresses toward resolving while resolving smaller ones along the way.
The closest you'll get to a one-dimensional character in Burn Notice is Michael's "clients." They are people who need some type of help, though it's not usually the simple, easy kind. Some have been marked for death by drug cartels, some have lost their entire life savings to a scam artist, some have cracked communication codes to find out spies are being outed and, subsequently, murdered. These are very minor parts and played well.
The big hitters are Michael, Sam, and Fiona. Full of personality, the way the main three interact create a lot of tension within the day to day events in the show. There is inevitable and unresolvable sexual tension between Michael and Fiona, as they have a long history together from his spy (and her IRA) days. Sam and Fiona, on the other hand, have little more than disdain for each other at the start, which eventually grows into mutual respect. Being continually thrust into deadly scenarios and having to rely on the same people can form that type of bond. As you learn more about the characters by watching them interact, you see their relationships change over time--also a great hallmark of any novel series.
Of course, throw in a few great support characters like Michael's hypochondriac mother, his unreliable-at-best brother Nate who seems incapable of staying out of money trouble, intriguing "handlers" like Carla, Barry the money launderer, Sugar the minor league drug dealer, Larry the mentor spy (who is supposed to be dead but is, actually, quite insane and rogue), and many others, and you have numerous ways to skin the proverbial cat. The way Michael, all too eager to remind us he's fallible and not invincible, interacts with the characters makes him easy to root for.
A show like Burn Notice just wouldn't work if it took place in Denver. Not that Denver is boring, it just has far fewer options than a tropical paradise like Miami. Speedboats and snow just don't mix well.
Miami is also close to a lot of conflicted areas, like Cuba, Haiti, and popular banking destination the Cayman Islands. It's well-known for drug and people-smuggling, and it is an incredibly diverse community. Seeing a yellow Ferrari is not out of place in Miami, whereas in Denver it would be, and even in New York it would be a little odd (depending on which side of town you were). Having lived in Florida, myself, I can tell you that the proximity of the ocean, the constant presence of causeways, and variation between sandy and swampy creates a decent environment for all kinds of shenanigans. Crime, drugs, clandestine dealings; the city is practically bulging with conflict.
As previously stated, Michael is for all intents and purposes stuck in Miami, and 99% of the show takes place there. This has to make the show a bit easier to film, budget-wise, but it also makes the show easier to look at. Call me superficial, but show me a few palm trees and hot girls in bathing suits, and you at least have my attention for a minute or two. The city provides a never-boring backdrop for whatever it is Michael needs to do, and some eye candy to make sure we're watching.
Hell, the sight of Gabrielle Anwar with a shotgun is worth it every time.
4) Execution (aka the telling of the story)
Personally, one of my favorite parts of the show is Michael's occasional narration. A little of it goes a long way, of course, but he's always there to explain something interesting a spy does to respond to a given situation. I've learned a little bit about small mechanics and wiring, hand to hand combat, and thinking strategically. Now, I'd be naive to say I was an expert in anything just from watching a tv show, but it does provide a bit of dimension to have the main character highlight these things, and it adds a layer of interaction for the viewer that they otherwise wouldn't have.
This show is no A-Team, though there are plenty of men with guns who couldn't hit the ground if they tripped and fell. The theme waxes and wanes between the outright comedic, with Sam's lines like, "You know spies, bunch of bitchy little girls," and the uber-serious life-and-death struggles of survival, torture, and loyalty to people and causes. There are problems to solve, and Michael solves them with efficiency and fervor.
That's not to say the show is absolutely perfect, but I like to think that flaws taken in measure can make something better (and more believable). When dealing with something episodic, you can easily be dealing with something formulaic. Burn Notice has these moments, when Michael's clients have their inevitable doubts as to the success of his plans. At some points their impatience is even frustrating, but it's a reminder that these people are afraid for their lives and can't afford to be as patient as someone who's been in mortal danger a thousand times.
It's rare that I see a glaring inconsistency, or get sick of the setting, or tire of the way Sam and Fi pick at each other. Some people dislike "spy" shows. Some people don't want to be narrated to and break that fourth wall. There are various things you can dislike about a show like Burn Notice but, as a writer, the above items are things to pay attention to so that you can master them in your own work.
All four seasons are currently available on Netflix. I suggest you set aside some time and get watching.
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