Thursday, January 22, 2009

Burn Notice: As Fond of Formulas as a Chemist

Here's what I've noticed about Burn Notice's writers: they're exceptionally good at tweaking one or two aspects of the show's formula while leaving the underlying structure untouched. It's a really clever way of throwing in just enough spice to keep viewers from becoming bored while maintaining what's made the show a rollicking success. They keep the viewers and the paint by numbers story lines. It's win-win.

The variations introduced tonight in the premier of the...well, I'm not quite sure what to call it. "The premier of the second half of season two", I suppose. Catchy. Anyway, the variations on the theme tonight were tweaks to the established characters. Michael, having just survived an explosive attempt on his life, seizes on yet another charity case as a kind of lifeline. This one, naturally, involves an adorable little kid suffering from a fatal heart ailment.

And for the first time in two and a half seasons, Michael Westin loses control. He becomes emotionally invested. In one of the more effective scenes in the show's brief history, he explodes at Carla, the woman who's been controlling him since the start of the second season. He's angry and frightening, to be sure, even when tied to a chair, but he's also just a little pathetic. After two and a half seasons of imperturbable calm in the face of a brutal injustice, Michael cracks just enough to impotently mutter, "I want my life back."

This is where the the writers lay the tracks on which the rest of the season will travel. Because Carla and the tortuously lethargic organization backing her didn't try to kill Michael. In fact, they were the victim of attacks on both Westin and the sniper they had so carefully placed for an assassination. (Who did Carla want to kill? No one, not even the writers, know.) And just like Michael, they want answers. So Carla, played by Tricia Helfer with a sultriness that's a little too conspicuous to be truly sexy, gives Michael a new task: find out who tried to kill him.

There's your new formula: Mike's going to spend the rest of the season making incremental progress along that arc while saving the usual group of schlubbs and foiling the usual group of drug dealers, thieves and con artists. It is, as I said above, a minor tweak on the same formula.

Season One: Mike tries to find out why he was "burned." Saves schlubbs.
Season Two, Part I: Mike tries to find out what Carla's up to. Saves schlubbs.
Season Two, Part II: Mike tries to find out who tried to kill him. Saves schlubbs.

I think I discern a pattern.

Granted, Burn Notice operates on an idea not dissimilar from the one driving Law and Order: the formula gives the show strength. "Formulaic" is not an insult, it's just an adjective, and one both programs embrace. If you miss an episode of Burn Notice or Law and Order, it's not a catastrophe. You don't need the information you missed in Episode A to enjoy Episode B.

You don't want to take that comparison too far, by the way. L&O treats its characters as ancillary to the story. We don't know much about Jack McCoy or Lennie Brisco or the stealth lesbian played by Elizabeth Roehm, and we don't need to know much about them. Brisco snarks over the dead body, the anonymous attractive ADA gets handed a motion to suppress and McCoy growls something inaudible.

Burn Notice, on the other hand, treats its story as ancillary to the characters. You tune in to see what ridiculous contraption Mike's going to MacGuyver up and how he's going to manipulate a drug dealer into crafting the noose around his own neck. You tune in to see Bruce Campbell do his redoubtable Bruce Campbell thing. You tune in to see if the writers have thrown in a particularly blatant piece of Gabrielle Anwar fan service. (And those viewers weren't disappointed tonight. There's also a little somethin' for the ladies. NO SPOILERS!) The nature of the crisis Mike tackles in any given week is irrelevant.

That's not a recipe for true greatness. But it is a formula for success on the USA Network, and it is indisputably entertaining.


samuel.x.killer said...

Traditionally, BURN NOTICE and LAW & ORDER carry on the television tradition of the "procedural" which CBS has a lot of success with this year, to wit their top new show THE MENTALIST. You make a good point about the degree to which personal storylines relate to the plot of an episode and there's a lot of gray, with L&O being the most absolute non-personal and BURN NOTICE on the other pole. The head of USA coined a new phrase for procedural shows with over-arcing personal storylines like BURN, along with MONK and PSYCHE on the same channel, "fauxedurals"

carlo said...

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jsalexandra said...

I totally agree with you that the writers have done a nice job in writing burn notice episodes.The story moves at such a great pace.It makes the show more entertaining.