If you watch USA's "Burn Notice" (which begins its fourth season Thursday at 9 p.m.) long enough, you may feel compelled to mentally narrate your everyday life in the style of the show's ex-spy hero, Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan).
"When you're picking out a swingset," you might suggest to yourself, "you're going to be tempted to go for something flashy like a tire swing or a rock-climbing wall. But kids get tired of those in a hurry, and then you've got a tire in your backyard that you can't even use on your car. Better to spend that money on a steeper slide or more rungs on the monkey bars."
Michael is an expert in every field even tangentially connected to the spy game - up to and including high-speed driving, carpentry and electronics repair - and therefore doesn't seem in need of much advice. But if I could offer some to the show's creator, Westen soundalike Matt Nix, it might be this:
When you're plotting out a season-long story arc, make sure you have a season's worth of stories to tell about it.
"Burn Notice" came into last season with a promising new status quo: Michael discovered who burned him (a group of black-ops specialists who recruit new employees by getting them fired from their government positions, leaving them with few options), turned down their job offer and was left adrfit, with no one to hunt for but also no one to protect him. There were a lot of possibilities in that scenario - too many, it turned out, including Michael being hunted by old enemies, the Miami cops suddenly looking into all the mayhem Michael had caused in the area, Michael trying to talk the CIA into rehiring him and Michael partnering up with a shady talent agent for spies.
There wasn't enough focus on any one of the ideas to make it work - especially since 80 percent of every "Burn Notice" episode is focused on the series' real bread-and-butter, which is Michael, sometime girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and buddy Sam (Bruce Campbell) working as vigilantes-for-hire, blowing stuff up on behalf of the persecuted and the powerless.
By the time the show returned from its annual mid-season break, most of the season's arcs were abandoned in favor of a new, puzzling, sleepy storyline in which Michael cozied up to an eeeeeevil (you could calculate the degree of villainy by the effeteness of his English accent) assassin to figure out what the man was up to. And even that was dropped with an episode to go as the assassin was murdered by his boss, an even more evil assassin. (The show at least traded up actors in the deal, swapping out the silly Chris Vance for the more casual, convincing menace of Garrett Dillahunt.)
All of those abrupt shifts from big idea to big idea, and villain to villain, suggested a show that wasn't sure what to do after resolving its original premise by letting Michael find out who burned him. The standalone stories - featuring most of the fun spycraft tips, the breezy chemistry between Donovan and Anwar and Campbell, and a variety of ingenious bits of problem-solving - didn't really suffer, but as the Chris Vance arc dragged on, I began to wonder if the show might not be better off going to all-standalone plotting, at least until Nix had an idea worth stretching out over multiple episodes.
But season four opens with an episode that's definitely stronger on the arc side, while giving us a done-in-one case for Michael and the gang that feels a bit perfunctory.
(Some mild spoilers for the premiere follow, though most of them deal with developments in the very first five minutes.)
We closed last season with Michael saving the life of "Management" (John Mahoney), the head of the rogue outfit that burned him, and then with him being carted off to a super-secret prison with a very tastefully-decorated drawing room. That's where the season begins (and Michael, not surprisingly, helps us draw some conclusions about what all that expensive decor means), as Michael meets Management's number two, Vaughn (Robert Wisdom, who played Bunny Colvin on "The Wire"), who again offers him a job, and makes a more effective sales pitch than Management did at the end of season two.
Donovan and Wisdom spar well, and the notion of Michael going to work for the men who ruined his life (and that of many others) creates some more convincing tension between Michael and Fi than existed for much of last year. I came out of the premiere feeling confident that there's a specific plan in place, as opposed to last year's more nebulous "anyone could come at Michael at any time" structure.
Of course, setting the big wheels in motion means less time than average for the case-of-the-week, which involves Rich Sommer (Harry Crane from "Mad Men") as a lawyer being threatened by a biker gang, so the solution to his problem doesn't seem as creative or multi-layered as the show often gives us.
"Burn Notice" is deservingly one of the biggest hits on cable TV, but it's always going to be a creative balancing act. In the first season, the larger story of who burned Michael was always more compelling than how he helped his clients. Season two brought the show's two parts into harmony, and then season three tilted heavily in favor of the standalones. Now that the season-opening exposition is out of the way, I'm hopeful that Michael Westen's day job and his night gig work together better.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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