Table For Two: A look at Burn Notice

By Andrea (AJ) Plaid and Arturo R. García

Arturo: On occasion, Andrea and I will catch up via Google Chat on this, that and the other. And as it happens,we got to talking about a shared favorite show, Burn Notice.

If you don’t follow the show, here’s the premise: The Adventures of Unemployed James Bond, with a side of Bruce Wayne Angst for the protagonist, Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), who does the whole A-Team “help those who can’t help themselves” thing while figuring out who and how he lost his job as a spy. Assisting him are his not-really-an-ex-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), professional kept man Sam (Bruce Campbell, chewing scenery like Sam drinks mojitos) and his increasingly conflicted mother Maddie (Sharon Gless).

Shot with an Ocean’s 11-style pizazz and buoyed by Michael’s “Dummy’s Guide To MacGyver” internal monologues for the audience’s benefit, Burn Notice slots in well alongside shows like Psych and White Collar as shows that get by on “quirk” – sometimes to the point of excess. But as Andrea learned, there’s definitely a method to the mirth. Ain’t that right?

AJ: Basically, when I complained on twitter that I didn’t understand the point of the USA Network shows, beyond an excessive amount of quirk, some head honcho from usa network tweeted back that they tested the shows and found that the formula of funny action-packed show with happy ending worked. I responded that winning formulas win winningly … what I should have added is that it becomes a formula of diminishing returns if every blessed show is the same formula.

Arturo: Now, unless you’re willing to “turn your brain off,” the ::ahem:: monochromatic nature of the principal cast, as seen above, looks especially problematic when you consider the show’s set in Miami, a city with a sizable Latino population. In what might be a back-handed way to address this disparity, two POC players entered the fold this season: spy-master Vaughan (Robert Wisdom) and, more prominently, counter-intelligence officer Jesse Porter (Coby Bell).


Arturo: At first, Jesse’s inclusion was cause for some hope – at least on my part. Here was someone who was potentially as good at his job as Michael is at his. Moreover, he was a good guy; the season so far has hinged on the fact that Michael’s the one who made the big mistake, when he inadvertently “burned” Jesse in the midst of an operation. Michael, being not a complete scoundrel, offered to help Jesse complete his work. But Michael opted not only to keep the truth from Jesse, but had his crew keep up the charade. And last week, Jesse learned (off-screen) the truth.

“I think he means to make us pay,” Fiona said to Michael, after an incensed Jesse fled Michael’s loft. So as fans of the show do, we started talking about it, and that led into an impromptu discussion about the politics on not just this show, but the USA Network’s other offerings.

Arturo: What’d you think of last week? I thought the reveal was a bit of a handwave. Or an okey-doke.
AJ: Again, Psych and ‘nem gets passed off as “quirky” when some weird-ass dynamics are at work … like the Burn Notice reveal. I just gave it — and jeffrey donovan — the side-eye.
arturo: I would’ve been happier if we’d seen Jesse make the call.
AJ: Yep. but it’s about the white guy and his white friends saving the day. That’s all the show’s been about. PoC-ified Miami is just the backdrop for their witty banner and heroism. Oh, yeah…and quirkiness. can’t forget the quirkiness.
Arturo: the sad thing is, Jesse’s character has regressed over the course of the season. He came in with his own expertise but eventually became … shit, does Robin have a sidekick?
AJ: I mean, I love the banter –and love love love donovan — but i also noticed that glaring aspect.
Arturo: And the whole “crush on Fiona” thing is just weird.
AJ: I know right?
Arturo: He had more chemistry with the spygal in the empty house.
AJ: Again…it’s the white woman as The Sought-After One, and I don’t think Gabrielle Anwar’s that hot. But, like Sookie, that’s the set-up.
Arturo: As much as I’ve grown to like Donovan’s Bruce Wayne act, I think the starting point of these issues is him.
AJ: Homie, ::fist pump:: with the Donovan observation.
Arturo: I mean, if you had Donovan as Westin the White Knight, pursued by a POC woman, that’d look weird in and of itself.

AJ:true … but everyone eyeballing Fiona is snoozy.
Arturo: She’s a bit posh
AJ: Hee! At the same time, even Westen had some chemistry with the WoC assassin. I never quite got sparks with him and fiona.

arturo: I think I’ve gotten it thanks to the Sledgehammer of Flirtation Fiona throws at him every episode.
AJ: It’s like we’re constantly told that she cares for him and he has feelings for her. Yeah, they kiss, but it leaves me cold.
Arturo: It’s a weird tic for Michael as a character: he constantly says he doesn’t want to put her at risk or whatever, but at the same time, she’s already been shown to be his equal, so there’s little to no logical reason for them not to co-habitate.
AJ: I almost want to go up to Donovan and ask, “Are you kissing on this woman b/c this is what the racial narratives dictate that’s what White Knights do?”
Arturo: If Donovan can explain those narratives in his usual monologue style, I think it’d make more sense:

“When trying to pitch a show to Middle America, you need three things:
1. A white guy in the lead.
2. A skinny white woman behind him.
3. Somebody “funny” to come in and make a joke but not get ahead of the first two.
If you lack any of those, your show will die.
Just ask Joss Whedon.”

AJ: Oh SNAP! Well … it didn’t save Heroes, did it?
Srturo: Well, that show tried to blend daytime drama family imbroglios with sci-fi.
AJ: Or Flashforward.
Arturo: Following the rules laid out above, if the show had been about, say, Peter doing [x] it might have had a shot.
AJ: True …
Arturo: Because Peter then takes the heroic journey (which really should’ve been Hiro’s, but that’s a whole other chat). And, hey, FF won an Emmy.
[Note to readers: No, really, it did. We’re just as shocked as you are]
Arturo: I was discussing this week’s Burn ep with a friend the other night. Our prediction: either Jesse dies, or Sam gets shot tomorrow.
AJ: Jesse dies. Killing off the poc is more convenient. Sam must come back for his own prequel.
arturo: I hope I’m proven wrong – exploring Jesse as an anti-Michael would be fun. To carry the Batman analogy a bit further, Simon is coming off as Michael’s Joker – the agent of chaos. So somebody just as organized as Michael, but on the other side of the coin, should be part of the rogues’ gallery. One would hope.
AJ: Right … but would the audience buy Simon if he was a POC doing the same thing?
arturo: I think an audience would.Whether it’s the “same one” USA is trying to attract is up for discussion.

AJ: See, as the network presents it, no. POCs are comic relief, e.g. Psych, or the ineffective “serious” partner, which is what i think Dule Hill is supposed to be on that show.
Arturo: while James Roday is half-Mexican but plays a white character.
Arturo: see, I was reminded of that in the early eps: Gus HAD A STABLE JOB and he left it for the sake of the agency.
AJ: Right….but gus is supposed to be the “straight man” to the other guy’s “antics.”Which means the jokes on the straight-man PoC.
Arturo: And then you had the ep where Shawn just fits in with Gus’ acapella group without a hitch. Uh, NO. That’s like me auditiioning for Franz Ferdinand because I sing “Take Me Out” at karaoke.
AJ: Or Gus was tap-dancing. i just about threw up in my mouth.
Arturo: At the time I was thinking, “damn, dude can dance!” but then I put it in the larger context and … ugh.
AJ: But hey — sez the network exec — the formula works, right? (/snark)
Arturo: This is also the network that does NCIS marathons.
AJ: And the Law and Order: SVU marathons.
Arturo: And, back in the day, Walker: Texas Ranger. Somehow I doubt we’ll see an Undercovers marathon there.
AJ: nope.
Arturo: but, hey, you’re a woman – you’re all over Covert Affairs, AMIRITE?
AJ: No, Arturo, I should be allllll over White CollarThat hottie lead, yum biscuits.
Arturo: I don’t want to punch many people in the face. But that guy is right up there.
AJ: But, interestingly enough, he did have a WoC love/sex interest–with diahann carroll as her moms, no less — and the writers wrote that out of the show.
Arturo: Well, that’s David Cassidy 101, no? Same reason Michael can’t engage in a full-on relationship with Fiona (and notice that it’s always him rebuffing her.)
AJ: Buuut … i think they had sex a couple of times on the least that was what was hinted at.
Arturo: oh, definitely. that’s still fan-service and all, and yet a) Michael doesn’t seem to even notice any other women and b) Sam’s relationships/hook-ups are presented as their own form of comic relief.
AJ: So, in essence, he’ll f-ck her but he won’t say he loves her. Got it.
Arturo: Well, we can assume he’ll f-ck her,or that he has. But he looks “accessible” for the fanbase. It’s part of the big question that I feel the series can’t (or won’t) answer: What Does Michael Want? b/c he seems to want his job back, but has grown an extra layer of morality doing his odd jobs.
AJ: hmmmm….good point.

Arturo: And it’s one thing for him to feel reluctant about getting involved with Fiona again – I still don’t know exactly ::why:: they broke up – but, sheesh, he couldn’t even ask that one (POC?) detective out for coffee after they were square?
AJ: Nope, he had to go eat some yogurt and sublimate his desires…or whatever that yogurt-eating’s supposed to symbolize, besides his “quirkiness.”
Arturo: I’m a Bat-fan and all, but we gotta be nearing the end of the cycle for the “emotionally repressed” male hero, no? At least the Nolan films all but specifically tell you he was definitely suffering from a trauma.
AJ: We’re supposed to get that “quirk” is a shorthand for suffering trauma, I think.
Arturo: we’ve gotten a few glimpses of that – most recently when Michael saw that Simon was his “mirror image.”
AJ: right …
Arturo: But it never gets followed up on. Even having somebody (other than Maddie) remark upon that lack of follow would be something. And I exclude Maddie because, as a character or “conscience” for Michael, her influence has diminished from season to season.
AJ: Maddie gets played as the–again that word!–quirky middle-aged mom that michael’s trying to distance himself from. you get the impression that he became a spy to get away from his mom, like she ruins his cool. But he loves her, ya know.
arturo: As a character, she’s written as wishy-washy. Like, she knows the deal with Michael and what he does and doesn’t like it. And yet, she’s almost a full member of the gang at times.
AJ: Whereas michael comes off as a bit quirky, maddie is flaky. That, to me, is where her influence tapers…as she gets increasingly flakier.

Arturo: and in the middle of all this, Jesse.
AJ: This PoC innocent.
arturo: I would’ve thought he could peg the whole Michael/Fiona thing as being full of drama.
AJ: No, he’s painted as intrigued by their outlaw world.
arturo: Which in itself is a reversal: here it’s the white people navigating the underworld, while Jesse was the honest “cop.”

AJ: Right … all he knows is Michael the white knight is going to figure out who burned him. I sorta thinks he’s figured out Michael’s the culprit, but–again–he’s too swept up by the glamour of Michael’s world, including Fiona.
Arturo: Y’know, given how Michael likes to talk himself out of trouble, why he didn’t just ‘fess up earlier, even in controlled circumstance becomes a little more unclear.
AJ: Because he can play out the white knight role. That’s what this whole season’s story arc is hinging on. If michael would’ve confessed that would have been — what? –two episodes.
arturo: Not necessarily.You can still write Jesse to hold Michael responsible (justifiably so) and make him into a longer-term Big Bad.
AJ: Jeffrey Donovan’s got a schedule to keep, people to entertain! Remember the USA formula –happy ending each episode.

Arturo: I know, I know. It’s the nature of the unimaginative beast.
AJ: What you’re suggesting is Masterpiece Theatre territory.
Arturo: Funny you mention that, actually. Let me steal an idea from the BBC’s recent Sherlock adaptation: just as Michael helps regular people, having Jesse become a Mr. Fix-It for the criminal set makes him Michael’s Prof. Moriarty. And how much more interesting does that become? You can even save the cash on importing Robert Patrick as a guest star.
AJ: Yeessssss! but that’s too interesting … and outside the formula.
Arturo: I know. Jesse deserves so much better.
AJ: Amen!
arturo: I mean, he still might get something here. But the formula doesn’t point to it.
AJ: It can’t. It doesn’t fill the USA network’s coffers.

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

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