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Film/Television Review

Why Burn Notice Was a Successful Television Series.

By Warren Bull


Now that the television series Burn Notice has concluded after seven seasons, some stations are replaying the entire series, episode by episode. Watching the second time around I’m able to focus on the how and why the series succeeded. My observations apply to writing a series of books as much as they apply to a television series.

 Matt Nix created the series. He was the writer and the show’s executive producer. One of the strengths of the program was Nix’s strong premise. An experienced government spy is “burned,” i.e. disowned when he is suspected of being a double agent. The spy wants to find out who “burned” him, of what he was accused and why, so he can disprove whatever was said against him and resume his career. No longer having access to government resources, he has to recruit and use people from his past to help. 

Played by Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Weston, the protagonist has a wide range of skills that include expertise with hand-to-hand combat, explosives, weapons and wiretapping. He has the skill set needed to sustain a protagonist in a series.

The show is very well acted with Gabrielle Anwar playing Fiona Glenanne, mistress of explosives and weaponry. Her supposedly Irish accent kept slipping in the earliest episodes, but she did a wonderful job of conveying intimidation despite her relatively small frame. Fionna was a participant in “the troubles” in Ireland, which is a credible reason for her to have deadly abilities. Bruce Campbell, veteran of B grade horror and action movies, as Sam Axe provides a great foil for Fionna. Sam is a retired military officer with a taste for women and booze and a history of combat. He, too, can believably shoot and blow things up. Sharon Gless, an experienced actress, portrays Michael’s mother, Madeline. Starting in the fourth season, Coby Bell joined the ensemble as a spy whom Michael “burns” in an effort to clear his own reputation. Bell is a skilled actor who adds another set of relationships to the cast. He also has a physique that suggests athletic abilities.

Michael has a complicated history with each of the other characters. Examining the complicated and changing relationships within the comedic and action storylines gives Burn Notice a depth and complexity that kept the audience interested beyond what an average comedic action series could achieve. The characters grow, regress and develop over time. That sequence keeps the series fresh and possibilities open for the actors and the writer.

Over seven seasons, Michael’s search for the truth leads him through encounters with dangerous members of his own and other intelligence agencies. He tries to help people who are threatened by spies or criminals whom he meets along the way. He is a sometimes reluctant hero who has to pursue his personal crusade but also has to interrupt his efforts in order to save innocent people. The skills that helped him as a spy—isolation from others, lying and keeping an emotional distance from everyone—hinder him in his relationships with friends and family. Villains from his past appear and re-appear. From time to time he is offered work,  using his spy skills for illegal purposes. If he refuses, his family and friends may be threatened in order to force his cooperation. Throughout the seasons,  Michael is under pressure in each episode.

As a writer, I would love to use a technique limited to visual presentation. When a character is first introduced, the camera freezes on the actor’s face and a brief description of the character appears in letters underneath. For example, a person might be described as, “Michael’s Client,” “Psychopathic Killer” or “Scumbag Drug Dealer” so the audience is immediately aware of who the character is.


The end of the series was carefully considered and well written. It was logical and satisfying, but, even though I had seen many episodes, I was not able to predict the outcome. It fulfilled the old burlesque adage: Leave them wanting more. 


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