There's a point in tomorrow's mid-season return of "Burn Notice" (10 p.m., USA) where one of the show's recurring villains tells ex-spy hero Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) that he's abruptly leaving Miami - but not to worry, because his replacement would be arriving soon.

And it's at that point where I decided I'm done paying attention to the larger "Burn Notice" story arcs.

"Burn Notice" creator Matt Nix has always had a tough challenge with those arcs. USA wants each episode to be largely self-contained - a plan that's paid-off handsomely in the ratings, where "Burn Notice" is one of the biggest hits on cable - which means Nix has to devote most of each hour to showing Michael and friends Sam (Bruce Campbell) and Fi (Gabrielle Anwar) working as freelance do-gooders in the greater Miami area. That leaves only a few minutes (usually at the start and end of each episode) to address Michael's ongoing quest to...

... well, that's part of the problem right there. Once upon a time, Michael was trying to find the people who got him blackballed from the espionage game, but he found them a couple of seasons ago. Then there was a stretch where the arc was about all of Michael's old enemies coming after him, but only kinda-sorta, and then Michael was trying to come back in from the cold, and then trying to stop a British assassin's nebulous plot, and then... something involving another spy, Jesse (Coby Bell) whom Michael himself accidentally burned.

Between the minimal amount of time spent on these stories and the way Nix keeps moving the goalposts for Michael, I've completely lost track of what it is Michael's trying to accomplish beyond the day-to-day. And the mid-season premiere, which features several jarring changes in agenda, finally made me throw up my hands and plan to mentally tune out those scenes going forward.

And that's a shame, because there was a point (in the second season, which climaxed with Michael confronting the man who burned him) where "Burn Notice" seemed so effortless and well-crafted, working equally well in its long and short-term storytelling. Now, though, it feels like there are arcs because someone worried that if Michael just set out a shingle as a private eye with special expertise in weapons and tactics, the show would seem insubstantial even by USA's intentionally lightweight standards.

(Some minor premiere spoilers follow.)

This week, at least, the standalone case is also uneven. Michael was shot in the chest in the summer finale, and he spends much of the premiere moving very gingerly and against doctor's orders as he tries to stop a serial bomber. But his incapacitation comes and goes depending on the needs of the plot. In one scene, he struggles to pick a lock one-handed, while in another, his limited mobility in no way interferes with his ability to outfight a larger, well-trained goon. It also feels a bit light on the voiceover spycraft tips that always set the show apart from a more standard detective show.

I'll keep watching for the chemistry between Donovan, Anwar, Campbell and (as Michael's mom) Sharon Gless, for what will hopefully be some good spycraft lessons in the future, and for those episodes where Team Westen is having a whole lot of fun blowing things up and trying on silly accents. But I think I've stopped expecting the show to return to its season two levels.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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