Burn Notice: Season 4
Miami Beach’s trademark splashes of fluorescent pinks, greens and yellows have malformed it into a beacon of tackiness where male residents trade Prada colognes for Coppertone sun block in the film and television universe. An IMDB resume boasting Striptease, The Bodyguard, The Blackout, Bad Boys and its sequel, prove that even grime-god Michael Mann’s Miami Vice reprise could not detract from SoBe’s tawdry art deco charm.
However, when kitsch aficionado Elmore Leonard hones in on South Florida, his signature blend of garish humor and suspenseful plot twists finds an appropriate backdrop as they meander across the shadows of the neon-lit dynamo. Matt Nix’s Burn Notice capitalizes on a similar interplay between setting and story, only Leonard has a magnificent ear for dialogue and advises writers to leave out the parts ‘readers skip’.
Season Four begins with Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) being sequestered by Management, the group responsible for ‘burning’ his spy-hood, so to speak. The urbane Vaughn (Michael Wisdom) is absorbed by Westen’s numerous talents and persuades him to work with the adversarial company. Westen’s possible turn towards the dark side convincingly invokes a battle with his conscience because a burn spy can’t simply rummage Craigslist in search of a new job, thereby making for a rather captivating premise. However, the execution of this first installment is slow and brutal like impalement.
In the thirteen minutes following the opening credits, the visceral Westen saves Vaughn’s life in the jungle, rushes through a reunion with his mother (Sharon Gless) and joins girlfriend Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar) and unlicensed P.I. Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell) on a crusade against a menacing biker gang set on killing some friend in the legal field over some misunderstanding about some girl or something or other. The awkward pacing is only outdone by periods of first person narration so strained, they made much of the episode sound like an instructional video on illegal weapons and flirting with the enemy.
The overacted melee results in a smorgasbord of painfully cheesy one-liners with a penchant for delivery I haven’t seen since the Power Rangers were on steady rotation. Such one-dimensionality makes it difficult for the viewer to pick up on the nuances of the protagonist’s inner life, which Nix promises will play a chief role in the story line as the season progresses. Instead, the strong-jawed Donovan’s difficulty in appealing to the character’s emotional gray areas conjures up memories of USA alums Norris and Seagal, the latter of which reminds me of a 5 o’clock shadow’s scratching sound on black polyester.
As the episode drags on, the insultingly primitive Breaker biker gang is further saturated with triteness as all Final Cut Pro transition presets are exhausted, while Westen’s Taoist internal struggle takes a temporary backseat. Then, in a manner as brief as the following abridgement, the plot is wrapped up by applying pressure to the carotid artery of Big Ed, the Breakers’ lead behemoth, and reading him a few paragraphs from Documents A, B and C and some bill statements. The biker badass is swiftly reduced to bite-sized proportions and everyone wins. Hooray. The writing, editing transitions, camera shifts and a shaky car ride complete with a mid-century back window panorama are so cursorily produced, they more accurately resemble Ashton Kutcher’s SNL parody of the show rather than a reputable TV series.
A laidback approach to the pressing demands of the action thriller genre needs more chariness than the creators of Burn Notice are willing to expend. The resulting product is so cheesy it attracts mold, a characteristic mirrored by the annoying synth-based promo music looped during every commercial break. My impression of the cable hit’s fourth season was that of an employment agency for broke Miami actors with unmarketable accents who need to pamper their resumes.
So, while writers like Leonard and Raymond Chandler helped elevate pulp fiction from lowbrow entertainment to high art, Burn Notice is merely a distress call to writers of drugstore mag lore. If the show intends to pay homage, I would advise Nix leaves that kind of work to Tarantino. Therefore, when Vaughn asks Westen whether he is ‘in or out’ milliseconds before the first commercial break, I can’t say my hand didn’t pat the bed a few times in search of the remote.