Burn Notice, and the structure of TV

Y’all remember Home Improvement?  Tim Allen, Patricia Richardson?  You remember the episode where Tim says something foolish, offends his wife, talks it over with his neighbor, realizes what he said, then fixes the problem at the end? Remember that episode? Or Bewitched, the episode where Endora casually curses Darrin, and Samantha has to use magic to fix it?

On TV nothing can ever change. But the appearance of change is essential.

Here’s how TV is structured; every show has a premise–hot young doctors cracking wise, a partnership between a homicide detective and novelist, high school chem teacher turns meth dealer.  The show has a series story arc, and every week, there’s an episode arc.  The episode arc is always something new, preferably something really innovative and interesting.  But the series arc can’t ever change much at all.  The best example of this are romances–TV love stories have to remain unrequited for season after season after season. . . . Great way to maintain dramatic tension, but it can get annoying when it just seems, you know, artificial. 

So my son and his wife got us hooked on Burn Notice, and now it’s a fave for my wife and I.  Premise: Michael Westen is a spy, CIA, and he’s been burned.  Fired, in other words, for some unknown malfeasance.  He’s stuck in Miami, no money, has to scramble.  So he does favors for people–uses his spycraft to right various wrongs involving ordinary folks who’ve gotten sideways with various sorts of bad guys.  So that’s the premise–the series arc involves Michael’s efforts to figure out why he got burned so he can fix it, and each episode arc involves him helping some new ‘client.’  Jeffrey Donovan is great as Michael, and, best of all, he’s got a sidekick, Sam, played by the immortal Bruce Campbell.  In fact we got into it because of Bruce Campbell, and also Michael’s mother, played by the great Sharon Gless (Cagney and Lacey, yay!)  Could live without Fiona, (Gabrielle Anwar), Michael’s girlfriend, but even she’s grown on us.

When I was a kid, I loved the Travis McGee books, John D. MacDonald’s series about a beach bum with a talent for intrigue and violence who does favors for friends.  Essentially the same premise as Burn Notice, plus also it was set in Florida–Lauderdale.  Burn Notice feels like an old friend. 

Now, Burn Notice isn’t one of those ‘ground-breaking, changes the map of television’ series–it’s not Mad Men, or Breaking Bad or The Wire.  It’s a fantasy, it’s mainstream, it’s good without being great.  But the characters are agreeable, and the episode arcs are generally imaginative.  It’s entertaining; it’s a lot of fun. 

The series arcs have been harder to maintain. Basically, the way they do it is with a series of super-villains.  A larger conspiracy has led to Michael being burned, and he digs into it, and discovers a Mastermind, who Michael’s just about to expose when he (Mastermind), is killed, it turns out by a bigger meaner Mastermind.  Pretty contrived, but not without its own pleasures.

For the fourth season, they had a Change, the kind of Change that TV series are often prone to–they added a character.  Jesse Porter (Coby Bell), also a burned spy, joined Michael and Sam and Fiona, helping their clients.  It was a Change, and Bell’s a very engaging actor, but it didn’t alter the premise of the show in any real way.  It just meant that the episode arcs could be a little more complicated–they could get another character involved. 

But this week, Burn Notice actually really did change things up.  They killed a character. 

The episode arc was about Sam helping a minor character, Barry the Fence (one of our favorites.)  And they were in danger, and it looked like Sam might die.  If that happens, I’m done.  You kill Sam, I’m gone. It’s Bruce Campbell, for heck’s sake. But it didn’t happen, of course.  This isn’t M*A*S*H, a show that was SO much about Hawkeye that they could replace Trapper John with B.J. and it only made the show better.  This is an ensemble show. 

But they did kill Nate. 

Nate is Michael’s ne’er-do-well brother, a guy with a gambling problem, who often appears on the show in the role of Client.  Sharon Gless has, repeatedly, had to say “Michael, he’s your brother!” in order to get Michael to help him.  But he’s also a lovable character, and really well acted by Seth Peterson.  And one of the central relationships in the show is between Michael and his Mom–Donovan and Gless have terrific chemistry on the show, and baddies are always threatening to hurt her if Michael doesn’t play ball in some nefarious way.  Now Nate’s gone. Dead. Wow. 

I mean, look, it’s an action-adventure show–bullets fly every episode.  Same episode, Barry The Fence took two bullets, though neither wound ended up being particularly incapacitating.  Cars blow up, houses blow up, thousands of rounds of ammo are expended.  What’s unrealistic is Michael not dying at some point.  And Nate was collateral damage–a sniper’s bullet went through a bad guy and hit Nate.  It sort of made a frankly (and entertainingly) preposterous show more real.  But . . . dang.  Nate.  Dude. 

This is going to change the show . . . well, actually not much at all.  It will complicate Michael and his Mom’s already troubled relationship.  For about three episodes. 

But here’s the thing.  Even though it’s actually a fairly minor change, it was shocking. I was stunned.  It felt like a punch in the gut.  They killed Nate?  Seriously?  It hurt.  Precisely because this is television, and in television, nothing changes, this actually kind of minor change affected me profoundly.

Yeah, I get that it’s silly to respond emotionally to something silly like a USA network action series.  But the glory of fiction is how we care, how we ache, and for what?  “Is it not monstrous, that this player here, but in a fiction, a dream of passion, could force his soul so to his own conceit. . .  and for Hecuba! What is Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba!”  But so we respond, to all the rogues and peasant slaves of our commodified fantasies.  To Hecuba.  And to Nate Westen.  Rest in peace dude, and Seth, good luck with your next gig.
  

One thought on “Burn Notice, and the structure of TV

  1. JaredNGarrett

    I don’t know if you like science fiction programs, but for shows that ‘Change’ things up, I recommend the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, as well as Eureka and Fringe.

    Also, now I want to see Burn Notice.

    Reply

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