USA, July 10, 10 PM
The temperature in downtown Miami is a sultry 87 degrees. The sun is so hot and the humidity so heavy, a white pigeon lands on a sidewalk and keels over like a little drunk sailor, momentarily stunned. The star of Burn Notice, Jeffrey Donovan, walks briskly past this minor avian tragedy without breaking stride or concentration. Wearing a black shirt with white pants, large black sunglasses masking his face like a bank robber, he’s in full Michael Westen mode. As Westen, a CIA agent-turned-private eye, he will burst into a scene in which he frees a woman being held hostage by a bad guy.
Or something like that. No one on the set will reveal exactly what the plot of this, the third episode of the new second season of Burn Notice, is all about. But from the way Donovan’s Westen handles the villain — giving the thug an unexpectedly warm smile, wagging his head back and forth playfully and saying ”Can’t we just talk this out?” shortly before punching the dude — it’s clear that this is a classic Burn Notice moment: The hero breaks the tension and then breaks a jaw, leaving his nemesis as senseless as that pigeon.
”It wasn’t just me, right? It was hot even inside, wasn’t it?” says the 40-year-old Donovan a few minutes later, after walking a few blocks from the real restaurant where the scene was being shot to a Thai place, where he digs into a platter of vegetables. Explaining his series’ mixture of action and spontaneous goofiness, Donovan says between bites, ”This show is intense espionage with humor. Levity is important with this character. You’re watching someone who could kill, but chooses not to, and puts a little giggle into the situation — it’s like putting a smiley face on a shark.”
Burn Notice, which begins season 2 with a batch of nine new episodes on July 10 (the remaining seven will air early next year), is certainly the kind of show that gives the USA Network’s breezy little slogan, ”Characters Welcome,” some bite. Unlike the cute OCD antics on Monk and the painfully cuter mugging on Psych, Burn Notice is a sleek, brainy, funny series: Think Miami Vice crossed with MacGyver. Donovan’s Westen is a top CIA operative who’s received a ”burn notice” — that is, termination without explanation. Baffled and vulnerable to the enemies he’s made over the years, Michael holes up in his hometown, where, to make a living while trying to find out who burned him, he uses his spy training to be a private eye. He receives help from his old Agency buddy Sam (the fab cult actor Bruce Campbell); comfort and occasional weapons backup from his slinky ex-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar); and nagging grief from his mother, Madeline (Sharon Gless). Says 36-year-old creator Matt Nix, ”I’d always been interested in the world of intel because a buddy of my dad’s had been in the CIA. I was curious about the practical realities of [the job]: What is annoying to a spy? What are the stories they tell each other? When the network asked for series ideas, I suggested a globe-trotting, wiseass spy and was told, ‘Um, yeah…we don’t do shows about spies who go to Turkey one week and Japan the next; the economics just don’t work for that.’ Then I heard about this thing called a burn notice and I thought, ‘Okay, what if we clipped his wings and he can only work locally?’ I was a Magnum, P.I. fan when I was a kid, and [Burn] became an update of a kind of show that isn’t really on TV anymore. It feels new, but it owes something to things that I love.”
One thing that fans love about Burn Notice is all the clever gadgetry Michael creates out of duct tape and hardware-store items — simple but effective weapons and security devices. Rigging a gun so it goes off when someone opens your door. Using a cell phone to trip a car bomb. ”I was a little alarmed at first,” says Gless of the homemade devices. ”I asked Matt, ‘Are you showing kids how to explode things?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, we always leave out one ingredient.”’ Lending authenticity to those ridiculously creative contraptions is Donovan’s voice-over narration, which coolly talks viewers through the process. ”When I see superhero movies, I want that stuff to exist for real,” says Nix. ”I love that. I don’t want [our] people doing things that are imaginary. And what the voice-overs sell to viewers implicitly is ‘You could do this. This actually works.”’
Inside a huge abandoned convention center in Miami stand the Burn Notice production offices. Bruce Campbell — the 49-year-old star of cult movies like The Evil Dead and cherished flops like Lost producer Carlton Cuse’s 1993-94 series, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. — eases himself into a chair. ”I’m doing this show ’cause it’s different,” says the man who once chopped off his own hand on screen, only to have it then give him the finger. ”It’s its own genre. Everything else seems so tired. Lawyer shows? My wife and I want to hang ourselves every time a courtroom scene comes on the TV screen. And if I was an actor on a medical show, I would hang myself, because here’s your dialogue: ‘Dr. Green, get me 22 cc’s of OxyContin down here, stat!’ What’s that bulls—? Nope,” he continues, contentedly patting a substantial belly barely disguised by a bright Hawaiian shirt, ”it’s a good time to be a new show on USA, because they’re tryin’ to make themselves into a playa. I mean, USA’s throwin’ down — 16 episodes this season!”
Basic-cable hits like Burn, The Shield, and The Closer have been steadily stealing both buzz and viewers away from the networks, and Campbell, for one, likes the open competition. ”There are more people watching TV now, but it’s all over the map, which is the way it should be. It’s a big country. We shouldn’t have just two political parties and we shouldn’t just have three or four major networks. Let’s have an even playing field, and may the best show win.” Of course, the most intriguing ratings battle Burn Notice engaged in last summer was not with network television, but rather with another stylish freshman cable drama: AMC’s Mad Men. Burn Notice never received the media blandishments of its time-period competitor, but it beat the Madison Avenue drama every week in the ratings, averaging 2.9 million viewers a week to Mad Men‘s 900,000. ”I must say, when I first heard Mad Men was going to be opposite us, I was like, ‘Oh my God, no! It’s got all the hype in the world!”’ says Nix. ”But during the strike I got a chance to meet [Mad Men creator] Matthew Weiner on the picket line, and he turns out to be the nicest guy in the world. So we can coexist as friendly foes, ratings-wise. I don’t have to use any of this knowledge I’ve accrued to have him killed.”
That doesn’t mean Nix doesn’t feel pressure to keep Burn Notice red-hot, and to that end the series will introduce a new character this season: a mysterious spy played by Tricia Helfer, best known as Battlestar Galactica‘s slithery Cylon Number Six. ”I had coffee with her yesterday; it was ridiculously exciting,” says Nix with a laugh. ”She plays Carla, the public face of the folks that burned Michael. It was made clear at the end of last season that Michael is being recruited into something, that people have plans for him, and she’s the one who delivers those plans. And it puts him in this interesting relationship, which is, in order to find out more about who burned him, he has to play along to find out what they’re doing, and get some leverage with Carla, to get off the blacklist. It’s a fun tension — he has to play nice, but not too nice.”
As for the 34-year-old Helfer, as much as she loves Battlestar, she also appreciates working in a more earthly environment. ”I’m still finishing up work on Battlestar Galactica,” she says, ”and any offers I’ve been getting for jobs after that have been, as you can imagine, very sci-fi, and I don’t want to get pigeonholed in that genre, as well as knowing that I’ll probably never get sci-fi material as good as Battlestar. I’m a fan of Burn Notice, and I also know I’ll probably never get offered a role in a thriller that’s as smart and funny as this.”
If Helfer is the newbie here, the 65-year-old Gless, as Michael Westen’s muumuu-wearing mom, is the seasoned pro — she estimates that Burn Notice is her 11th TV series. ”Matt told me the character of Madeline was a chain-smoking hypochondriac; I said, ‘I can do that!’?” Like the other supporting players, the Cagney & Lacey veteran says she’s there ”to expose different sides of [Jeffrey’s] character.” Or as Campbell puts it: ”Yes, things blow up in this show, but it’s ultimately all about the relationships. It’s about him having to go back after a job and fix his pain-in-the-ass mother’s garbage disposal.” Or, even worse, go to mother-son therapy, which will happen in episode 2, because, says Gless, ”Madeline wants to work through their issues.”
Westen also has issues with Fiona, the ex-girlfriend who simply won’t go away — but darned if she isn’t useful, helping the hero solve cases by distracting the bad guys with her pretty flirtiness or ruthless gun skills. Anwar, 38, a British-born actress (The Tudors, Scent of a Woman) who uses an American accent here (after an aborted attempt at an Irish one in the pilot), says, ”It’s wonderful to play a woman with balls without having to be masculine. With good writing, you don’t have to embellish your character traits. I don’t have to play the vamp. Their feelings for each other are all in their intonations, their looks at each other, and that’s very unusual in this genre of TV shows, where it’s often so much about plot and things blowing up.” For a Brit, she’s awfully Floridian — that is, well tanned. ”I love the tropical climate. I’m still defrosting from a childhood in England, so I have a few good years before developing various forms of melanoma.”
Donovan, his healthy lunch consumed (he gives meat a burn notice; even chicken is ”a dirty bird”), lopes back onto the sweltering set, where the bad guy is standing on his mark. Donovan moves up close, does a quick jujitsu whirl that ends with a palm strike that barely misses the villain’s nose. ”Just kiddin’,” Donovan says, busting out a Michael Westen grin. Boy, it’s hot.