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Another Smoldering Season From ‘Burn Notice’

July 10, 2008

By Maureen Ryan, Chicago Tribune

Jul. 10–Last summer, two new cable dramas went head to head at 9 p.m. Thursdays. One was AMC’s low-rated but critically adored “Mad Men,” which won rave reviews and is seemingly everywhere in the media as its July 27 Season 2 premiere approaches. The other was “Burn Notice,” which returns 9 p.m. Thursday on USA Network.

But where are the magazine covers and award nominations for “Burn Notice,” which garnered five times “Mad Men’s” weekly audience of 1 million viewers? Jeffrey Donovan, who stars as ex-spy Michael Westen, said in a recent phone interview from the show’s Miami set that he doesn’t really expect any Emmy love when nominations are announced July 17, despite the show’s status as a bona fide cable hit.

“I think we’re going to be overlooked in the awards realm–not because we don’t deserve it, but because no one knows how to categorize us,” Donovan said.

Donovan hit the nail on the head. The fine “Mad Men,” the return of which I’m very eagerly awaiting, is easily slotted into the “drama” category.

But “Burn Notice,” whose return is most welcome as well, is a different animal, one that defies easy categorization. It’s a caper chronicle with a dark edge; it’s a spy drama with deadpan comedy; it’s Jason Bourne meets “The Rockford Files.”

Except Westen isn’t a detective in the manner of Jim Rockford. And he most definitely isn’t a cop.

He’s an ex-spy who was “burned,” or exiled from the intelligence community for reasons he has yet to figure out. Having solved part of that puzzle last season, he may get more clues this year, when a mysterious new “handler” named Carla (“Battlestar Galactica’s” Tricia Helfer)–a representative of the people who burned Westen–shows up in Miami, where he was stranded.

Until he gets answers about who blacklisted him and why, Westen has to take odd jobs helping people who’ve been conned, robbed or otherwise victimized but who can’t go to the police. With the help of his ex-girlfriend, covert ops expert Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), and his best friend, espionage veteran Sam Axe (the great Bruce Campbell), Weston helps a ragtag array of clients, often while he’s fending off his hypochondriac mom (Sharon Gless).

“Let’s face it, being down on South Beach, helping an old lady who’s been conned is not the espionage world that he used to have,” Donovan notes. Yet Westen’s sardonic attitude toward his new hometown is tempered by the show’s breezy setting and by the deadpan voice-overs from Westen that explain how, as Donovan put it, to “make an atomic bomb out of a toaster.”

“That’s the fun thing about ['Burn Notice,'], because you almost never see that,” said Helfer. Most spy chronicles are “either a spoof on being a spy or [are] super-serious. This just seems to balance the two.”

But when creator Matt Nix first wrote the “Burn Notice” pilot, the tone was a little more serious and the setting was a little less glamorous. Think Newark, N.J.

The idea was, “Let’s explore the dark places this dark guy comes from with a particular kind of edgy sense of humor,” Nix said. “It was fun, but then when USA [said], ‘We want something lighter,’ I went through multiple drafts not really knowing what they meant.”

What USA executives were trying to convey was the idea that they wanted a program that would fit in with their other original series–comedy-dramas such as “Monk,”"The Starter Wife” and “Psych.” But Nix remained adamant about the charms of New Jersey. “I don’t know why I was so passionate about it being set in Newark. I was an idiot.

“Ultimately, I think it’s a much better show” with the changes, Nix said. “It’s a tonal trick to pull off every week, and we’ve got a lot of plot to get through. … [But] there isn’t a lot of entertainment on television that is kind of hard-core about some things and breezy about others. We ended up landing in a pretty interesting place that’s fun to write.”

But constructing the show’s plots, Nix and Donovan point out, is far more complicated than it looks. After all, Westen is not pursuing leads in crime cases–he usually knows who his adversary is in the first few minutes of each episode.

” ‘Burn Notice’ is a show where, every week, we have to figure out a new reason to make friends with the bad guy,” Nix said. “We can’t arrest him. Michael’s not a cop; he can’t haul in [anyone] for questioning. If we’re going to solve this problem, we have to make friends with him or we at least have to become the kind of enemy you have to talk to a lot.”

Westen’s new handler, Carla, isn’t exactly receptive to his charms.

Carla, who appears in the first two episodes of Season 2 and will be back later in the season, forces Westen to work for her by threatening his family. And later this summer, she gets him to collaborate with another, very bitter ex-spy, Victor (Michael Shanks from “Stargate SG-1″).

“He’s always going to have a handler no matter what organization he works for,” Donovan said. “But that it’s Carla and that she’s threatening my family, that’s a little higher stakes than threatening to shut me out of my 401(k). So that I take personally.”

The ongoing mystery of who exiled Westen from the spy world is one thing that keeps fans tuning in to the show, but Nix is quick to point out that nobody should expect a big revelation about who issued the burn notice.

“We’re not really in the business of selling huge revelations,” he noted. “There are plenty of shows that are. They’re heavily serialized shows with many series regulars who can be killed off or revealed to be something other than what they are. That’s not what we do. [Our show is] more in the vein of figuring out, what’s a novel approach to this problem, how can we solve this?”

For more from Helfer, Donovan and Nix, go to chicagotribune.com/watcher.

moryan@tribune.com

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