Review: Burn Notice 1×1

Burn Notice

In the US: Thursdays, 10/9c, USA Network

In the UK: Not yet acquired but Hallmark or Five will probably get their greedy mitts on it

I’m rather partial to a good spy show. A good spy show is better than almost any other kind of genre show you can think of.

But note the use of the word ‘good’ there, because there haven’t been many good spy shows. Not proper spy shows. Callan, The Sandbaggers, a couple of episodes of Man in a Suitcase but that’s about it.

Don’t you even think about mentioning Spooks. Just don’t.

The other spy shows all suffer from a serious lack of realism. They aren’t so much spy shows as action shows (or comedies in most other cases). And as Jeffrey Donovan points out during the voice over at the beginning of Burn Notice, most spy work is about as interesting as sitting in a dentist’s waiting room all day. It isn’t action work.

Burn Notice tries to have its cake and eat it. It tries to be a proper, grown-up spy show – the first the US has probably ever produced (don’t even think of saying 24. Or Threat Matrix. Or whatever you were just about to say. Just don’t). But it also tries to mix in a bit of action, a bit of humour – mostly through Donovan but also through MAN GOD Bruce Campbell – and a bit of that relentless “character” that USA Network is now (in)famous for.

And you know what? It actually works. I think.

Plot (smuggled out on a microdot from the USA Network web site)

Jeffrey Donovan stars as Michael Westen, an international spy who suddenly finds himself blacklisted. Dumped in his hometown of Miami without money or resources, Michael struggles to put his life back together and find out why he’s been burned. In the meantime, he uses his unique skills and training to help people in need… mostly people who can’t get help from the police.

Michael is joined by Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) an ex-IRA operative, who also happens to be an ex-girlfriend; and Sam (Bruce Campbell), a washed-out military intelligence contact who’s being used by the feds to keep tabs on Michael.

He’s also forced to confront the family he went halfway around the world to get away from – particularly his mother, Madeline (Sharon Gless) who couldn’t be happier to have her son back in town.

Is it any good?

There’s something about Jeffrey Donovan shows and the USA Network. The USA Network is normally home to quirky shows with a light touch. But as soon as Jeffrey Donovan appears in the show’s cast list, it suddenly becomes black as night. One of my favourite shows ever, the US remake of Touching Evil, starred Donovan as a brain-damaged, clinically depressed cop investigating serial killers and the bleakest members of humanity you could ever hope to come across – or avoid. It was brilliant.

Burn Notice is about 75% darkness, 25% standard USA Network output, which is probably a relatively comfortable level for most viewers. Like a dark, modern version of MacGyver, Donovan goes about Miami outsmarting the FBI and doing highly illegal things to bad people using everyday household objects, while in voiceover he explains what he’s doing and why the version you see in movies and on TV is all plain wrong. Why buy an expensive bug when you can make one out of a rubbish cheapo mobile phone? Why try shooting through a drug-dealer’s bullet-proof door when you can shoot through the plaster wall surrounding it? Why go on a high-speed chase that will simply put you on the evening news, when all you have to do is drive slowly but badly until the person who’s following you makes a mistake? We also get a touch of The Sandbaggers with Donovan griping about the budgets he had to put up with.

And so on. It all sounds authentic (with occasional lapses), thanks to the input of various former spies and military intelligence specialists into the script. Certainly, a show that has an IRA operative who was purely in it for the bank robberies is a few steps up the realism ladder than certain shows I could name. Although it’s Press Gang‘s Gabrielle Anwar with a ridiculous Irish accent and she does martial arts now, so it’s not totally realistic.

But around this central spy core, there’s a more standard USA Network show, with Donovan having to deal with his hypochondriac mother (an almost unrecognisable Sharon Gless), the potentially untrustworthy comic relief (MAN GOD Bruce Campbell) and Anwar, who’s also his ex-girlfriend. He’s also having to earn money by helping people who are in trouble, which makes him a nice ex-spy PI, hey?

It all hangs together quite well. It lacks the reality to make it a truly great spy show, although it’s at least very good. Donovan is his usual magnetic self. Campbell is his usual entertaining self. And Anwar’s only problem is that crummy Irish accent.

There’s also quite a nice overarching plot to the show, with someone who’s as equally skilled as Donovan keeping him under surveillance – presumably someone who knows who put the burn notice out on him.

Definitely one to keep an eye on. Here’s a couple of YouTube trailers. You can also try watching it in 10 minute chunks on YouTube, assuming they don’t remove it by the time you read this.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.