Questions and realisations from television last week: Burn Notice

It’s back, but it’s mutated. “Things I learned from watching television last week”/“Things I learned from television last week”/“Things I learnt from last week’s television” (style guide? What style guide?) has returned – but in a different guise (as promised). After a brief experiment last week, it has now emerged from the pupa of my brain into something hopefully more butterfly-like than the original caterpillars.

Here goes: this week’s question(s) – which I throw open to the floor to answer, whether you’ve seen the show or not – and realisation(s) – for which I also invite comment – come from having watched the rather good finale of Burn Notice on Friday.


Why is Michael Westen the only ‘goodie’ allowed to kill people on the show?

There is a scene (I won’t spoil it for you with any more details if you haven’t seen it) where his ‘trigger happy’ ex-girlfriend has a sniper rifer and clear shots, so clear she can shoot at railings and anything else if she feels like it with extreme accuracy. Yet, she doesn’t. It would have been extremely advantageous if she had, but she doesn’t. Yet ‘hero’ Michael gets to shoot people willy nilly. Why is this? Is it the show’s rating? Is it gender politics? Anyone have a better idea?


Fight scenes on TV shows are getting so much better these days

I provide the YouTube video at the top of this entry as evidence. Okay, it’s not The Bourne Ultimatum and there are a fair few clunky bits. But that’s pretty impressive, no? Compare that to the Captain Kirk fights of the 60s, and the really rubbish fights in Kung Fu in the 70s (or even the 90s), and you’ll note that even the lowliest TV show can have good fight scenes these days.

Why should this be?

I have theories. There’s the far greater availability of martial arts training and the far greater availability of stunt men trained in martial arts from early ages. Then there’s the fact the actors are far more likely to be trained in martial arts themselves: Battlestar Galactica‘s infamous boxing episode still had notably good fight scenes because Tahmoh Penikett is a keen boxer and mixed martial artist (and one of the extras was a Canadian mixed martial arts champion).

Plus the choice of martial arts used in movies and television is changing. Go back to the 60s and 70s and, bar anything with Bruce Lee in it, you were almost guaranteed to see only judo and certain forms of traditional karate (although ITC shows tended to use jiu jitsu, since the main stunt choreography was a former paratrooper). Even Kung Fu only had kung fu in the pilot episode and the third season – it was judo and a bit of flailing all the way for the first two seasons, bar one episode with some really bad capoeira. None of those styles looked desperately good on film.

Now, you can’t move for the diverse ranges of martial arts in TV and film: Alias was the home of some rather prosaic kickboxing; the Bourne films use Kali, which is a Philippine style; Batman Begins uses a completely new, made-up style, The Keysi Fighting Method, based on Bruce Lee’s own invented style, Jeet Kune Do; Equilibrium invented its own gun-based martial art, gun kata; Andromeda was end-to-end wu shu; if you squint hard enough, you can see Kristanna Loken doing Israel’s Krav Maga during some of her films and TV work. The list goes on.*

Of course, there’s a world of difference between real martial arts and film martial arts. Watching Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon these days, it’s notable how bad the martial arts look, even though, if you know what you’re looking for, it’s clear that most of the people involved really know what they’re doing, even John Saxon. But Hong Kong cinema has spent decades refining how best to make fights look good on film and television. But shows now allot a decent amount of time to stunt fight preparation – these aren’t the days when Gerald Harper would turn up on the set of Adam Adamant! and be expected to learn the entire fight and do it in a couple of takes. Now dedicated fight choreographers take their time to arrange fights, knowing they can’t get away with the things they used to do in the 60s – we expect better and have seen better, now.

So, it’s notable that the lowliest show can now do decent fight scenes, even if the rest of it is rubbish (The OutsidersI’m looking at you here and here on YouTube). That’s my realisation this week. Hopefully next time’s will be less anal.

* Actually, though, you could see a certain amount of variety in some 70s films, with the slightly spoofy Doc Savage: Man of Bronze, for example, quite authentically deploying a variety of styles – with a little caption at the bottom of the screen to let you know which style was being used. But the general principle holds true, that despite a little flirtation with different styles during the Kung Fu boom of the early 70s, things settled down by the 80s, before improving again in the 90s.