What to expect from returning favorites such as ''Burn Notice,'' ''Project Runway,'' and ''The Closer,'' the new miniseries ''Generation Kill,'' and reality premieres including ''The Greatest American Dog'' and, um, ''Hurl!''
Tricia Helfer, Jeffrey Donovan, ...
Credit: Dan Littlejohn

USA · July 10 · 10 PM

THE SCOOP 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. Jeffrey Donovan’s Michael 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?”

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.”

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.”

NOTHING TO BE MAD ABOUT Last summer, Burn Notice engaged in an intriguing ratings battle 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.” —Ken Tucker

This preview is excerpted from the Entertainment Weekly Summer TV Preview issue. Click here to read Ken Tucker’s complete feature about the new season of Burn Notice

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