If it were made by HBO, it would be on Sky Atlantic every night and you would be talking about it every next morning: it’s that good. Instead, Burn Notice is a tense US thriller series tucked away on FX and 5*. It’s routinely more exciting than Spooks, it’s glossier than 24 and it’s also far funnier than you’d think a serious and believable spy drama could be.
Start now. Watch any episode. They all begin with a spiel that tells you what’s going on: Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) used to be a spy. In the middle of a job, he finds out he’s been burned: dropped by his agency, cut off from everything and everyone. Someone has planted evidence that makes him look dirty and Michael is out. No appeals.
In theory, then, the show was all about him trying to find out who did this, about why he’s been framed. But really it’s about how he copes outside: working to survive, relying on friends and – because he’s been dumped back in his home town of Miami – avoiding his mother.
Jobs come to Michael via an ex-girlfriend who’s played by Gabrielle Anwar: best known in America for starring in Scent of a Woman but forever known here for being in Press Gang. Then there’s Sam Axe, an ex-military pal played by Bruce Campbell from a hundred thousand TV and movie roles. Michael’s chain-smoking mother is Sharon Gless, late of Cagney and Lacey. Now that she finally knows what he does for a living, she’s prone to loaning him out to help her friends.
Every episode is narrated by Michael Westen, almost as if in a training video: “When you fight, you have to be careful not to break the little bones in your hand on someone’s face. That’s why I like bathrooms. Lots of hard surfaces.”
Most episodes will also require Michael to improvise explosives or bugging devices: saying that sounds like he’s MacGyver, but it’s the practical result of him being cut off from his agency and resources. It’s all so believable that real US agencies have asked the show to leave out key ingredients or back away from revealing everything they planned to.
The show’s creator, Matt Nix, says he is constantly searching for new things for Michael to make: “There comes a point when you start reading warning labels as, like, instructions. ‘Contents under pressure may explode’? Excellent!”
Watch any episode. But look for the pilot first: you’ll be addicted and want to see the whole story right from the start. If you do though, you’ll need to buy the box sets. Burn Notice is in its fifth season in the States, while FX is currently showing its fourth on Wednesday nights at 9:00pm. Seasons three and four are on 5* on Tuesdays at 9pm and Fridays at 10pm. You can also watch selected episodes on demand.