TV's laid-back spy games

The Baltimore Sun

When Jeffrey Donovan first auditioned for the role of Michael Westen, a new TV spy, he didn't go for the intense, Kiefer Sutherland-on-24 sort of thing. Donovan's take was more laid-back. Sarcastic. Been there, done that.

In an instant, Burn Notice creator Matt Nix knew he'd found his star.

The last thing Nix wanted was for his hero to be, well ... "spy-ish." He envisioned something un-Alias, a non-24.

"Those shows [depict] a very dramatic world," Nix says. "People run around saying" - he adopts a deep, basso acting voice - " 'You don't understand! We're up against the hugest organization in the world, and we're all going to die unless we do this thing in the next 42 minutes!' "

Back to regular Nix: "On Burn Notice, we kinda go in the opposite direction."

Like in the pilot, when Michael is stuck between two thugs in the back of a Mercedes. "You know, Mercedes makes an SUV now," he says. "Big back seat ... surprisingly affordable, too."

Michael Westen is no James Bond. He's Stephen Colbert armed with sunglasses, a hot babe sidekick and perhaps some combustible homemade thermite powder, outwitting villains with levity as well as pyrotechnics.

The series, which debuted on the USA Network last summer, was a hit. And tonight, after nearly a year, Burn Notice returns for a second season, as quirky and clever as ever.

The premise remains the same. Michael, a former agent, is stuck in his hometown of Miami, broke and blacklisted. (In spyspeak, a "burn notice" is like a pink slip, but worse.) He's desperate to figure out who "burned" him and why, but he also needs to pay the rent. So he dabbles in crime-solving, helping folks in need using Special Ops training and assistance from Sam (Bruce Campbell), a semiretired colleague, and Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), a sultry, ruthless IRA operative - and Michael's ex-girlfriend.

Each episode is like "Spying for Dummies," with Michael explaining how to tail a suspect, use a flash grenade, escape from a house when all exits are blocked. (Bust out the air-conditioning unit, where the wall is weakest and when nobody's watching.) Nix prides himself on getting the details right and even has a private intelligence operative on staff.

When Donovan was first cast, he read up on spies and intelligence. "I don't remember the [book] titles," Donovan notes. "Or [they] made me forget - by some brainwashing message embedded in the text," he jokes. "They all spoke about the same thing. How boring and long the waiting is between actual missions. Kind of like sitting on a movie set."

The show revels in that kind of reality. Michael's world is shaken, not sugarcoated.

Take Madeline, his manipulative, chain-smoking mother (played by Cagney & Lacey vet Sharon Gless). "It's a little weird to have a spy show with a mom on it," Nix admits. "But this is a show where all the hard things are easy and the easy things are hard."

Thug in the doorway? No problem. But a nagging mom? That 007 never had it so tough.

Joseph V. Amodio writes for Newsday.


The second season of Burn Notice begins at 10 tonight on USA.

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