A quick review of last night's "Burn Notice" coming up just as soon as I'm murdered over a parrot...

I hadn't intended for this review to be a follow-up to the thesis in my "Covert Affairs" review about procedural shows like the ones USA does being extra-dependent on the guest-casting, but the more I think about "Hard Time," the more I keep looping back to that.

"Hard Time" followed the traditional "Burn Notice" structure, opening and closing with Michael dealing with the season-long story arc, and devoting most of the middle to the client of the week. So we had opening and closing scenes featuring the wonderful Robert Wisdom and Garret Dillahunt, and then a vast chunk of time where Jeffrey Donovan was hanging out with the extremely forgettable Juan and Cruz. So even though the prison scenes had some nifty Westen-isms - book covers as body armor, blowing up the infirmary, etc. - the overall story felt limp and left me impatient waiting for Michael to get back to Simon, even as I knew the show's format meant we wouldn't get that until around the 55-minute mark.

I spent a lot of last season wondering if the show had perhaps outlived the need for the story arcs. In hindsight, though, the problem wasn't with the arcs themselves - which were no more or less nonsensical than this chain of missions that Michael has taken on behalf of his agreement with Vaughn - but with the guest stars involved in them. Michael having to deal with a cop who keeps noticing all the laws he breaks had a lot of potential, but Moon Bloodgood was a dud as the cop. Ditto Chris Vance as Gilroy. I don't think it was a coincidence that the one successful mini-arc of season three was the Strickler one, where Ben Shenkman lived up to the menace and charm that the writers clearly intended for the character.

The guest star thing isn't a hard-and-fast rule. The kidnapping episode from a few weeks ago (which aired while I was otherwise occupied at press tour) had a pair of actors I like in Yancey Arias and Steven Culp, but what made it work was the spotlight on Fiona. Jeffrey Donovan, Bruce Campbell, Gabrielle Anwar and Sharon Gless are so good together that they can render the guest stars irrelevant; I'd easily watch an episode of the show that was just a 41-minute version of a "MacGruber" sketch, with Michael, Sam and Fi arguing as they try to disarm a bomb in a locked room. But the plot-driven nature of the series, both on the episodic and arc levels, requires a regular amount of time and emotional investment in people outside the regular cast, far more than on a more character-based show like "Mad Men" or (since it's not fair to compare most dramas to "Mad Men") "Parenthood." So if the writing and/or casting of those people isn't top-notch, it can pull down even a show with such appealing leads.

What did everybody else think? And with the summer half of season four almost finished, how satisfied are you with where the larger story is going?