The Phoenix Network:
About  |  Advertise
Adult  |  Moonsigns  |  Band Guide  |  Blogs  |  In Pictures
Puzzles  |  Sports  |  Television  |  Videogames

Scout's honor

Burn Notice ’s honest con job
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  August 26, 2008

BE PREPARED: Jeffrey Donovan’s Michael Westen is such a straight hero, you could imagine him in an ad for Arrow shirts.

In the popular imagination, the spy is always cool, sophisticated, elegant — in other words, European. The American contribution to pop imagination, the private eye, is more suited to our native character: brash, wisecracking, two-fisted.

One of the great jokes on Burn Notice, which is now in its second season on USA (Thursdays at 10 pm), is that it gives us an American spy who is neither a Continental wanna-be nor a shamus by another name. Instead, Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) is another established American icon: the Boy Scout.

Resourceful, industrious, clean-cut, helpful to others, honest (okay, a practiced undercover con man, but only in the name of righting wrongs), Michael, as played by Donovan, is such a straight hero, you could imagine him in an ad for Arrow shirts. Even his cravings are healthy: he consumes so much yogurt that manufacturers must be fighting one another to buy ad time on the show.

The premise of Burn Notice, which was created by Matt Nix, is that Michael, a spy for some unnamed US agency, is abruptly “burned.” That is, he’s deprived of his clearance and his identification, his assets are frozen, and he’s dumped in a city — in his case Miami — on a kind of indefinite probation.

The backstory has Michael trying to discover who burned him and why. And the show’s creators are smart enough to treat his quest as comic investigatus interruptus. Every week, he’s guilt-tripped into helping some poor sap who’s stumbled into a situation that requires someone to outsmart a set of baddies who think they’re infallible. What follows, in voiceover and deftly edited sequences, is the meeting of Bob Vila, Mr. Wizard, and 007’s Q, in which Michael concocts surveillance devices, booby traps, and other handy gadgets from — all together now — common household items.

Since gadgets by themselves don’t get the job done, Michael’s good deeds entail luring the bad guys into a con. And it’s then that Amesbury native Donovan, posing as some overeager or impossibly cool player, really shines. He lays on the kind of Boston accent that Matt Damon fakes and Mark Wahlberg does naturally, and the result is peculiarly American: refusing to be intimidated by the villains he’s putting the squeeze on, he acts like a Southie kid who’s lucked his way into Hugo Boss suits and who eyes every sharpster who crosses his path as some foreigner not to be trusted. He’s a sharpie in lout’s finery, and what tickles you is the surface brashness and buried shrewdness.

The creators have also given Michael a crew of gifted second bananas. Gabrielle Anwar as Michael’s ex Fi (short for Fiona, rhymes with tea), a former IRA terrorist, and Bruce Campbell as Michael’s buddy Sam, a retired Navy SEAL, are spectacularly funny. The hatred Fi and Sam express toward each other has nothing to do with buried attraction and, as critic Laura Miller has pointed out, everything to do with the jealousy of warring siblings vying for a parent’s attention. Whenever violence threatens to break out, Anwar shows both an excited gleam and contentment, anticipation and afterglow, all in one.

1  |  2  |   next >
Related: Mother courage, My Name is Bruce, Deal with It, More more >
  Topics: Television , Boy Scouts of America, Matt Damon, Bruce Campbell,  More more >
  • Share:
  • Share this entry with Facebook
  • Share this entry with Digg
  • Share this entry with Delicious
  • RSS feed
  • Email this article to a friend
  • Print this article
HTML Prohibited
Add Comment

Share this entry with Delicious
  •   PLEASURE PRINCIPLES  |  December 02, 2009
    Willard Spiegelman seems like a nice guy. He has had the good luck to live a happy life without major disaster or suffering. But as a long-time professor of English at Southern Methodist University and editor of the Southwest Review , he has ended up living his life among just those people — writers and academics.
  •   HEART AND CLAW  |  August 25, 2009
    Joe Lansdale's Hap and Leonard act out
  •   WYNDHAM'S WAR  |  July 21, 2009
    Francis Wyndham's first book of short stories, Out of the War , was published in 1974, when the author was 50 and in the midst of a distinguished career of reviewing and editing.
  •   DEATH WATCH  |  May 19, 2009
    Michael Connelly's newspaper elegy
  •   REVIEW: HONEY WEST  |  February 17, 2009
    I didn't see Honey West during its one-season, 1965-'66 prime-time run on CBS.

 See all articles by: CHARLES TAYLOR

RSS Feed of for the most popular articles
 Most Viewed   Most Emailed 

  |  Sign In  |  Register
Phoenix Media/Communications Group:
Copyright © 2010 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group