“Burn Notice” premiered in June 2007 on USA Network with a fairly simple premise: blacklisted spy Michael Weston (Jeffery Donovan) survives in Miami as he juggles helping the downtrodden and finding out who burned him. Joining him were a trigger-happy ex-girlfriend, a spy who used to inform on him to the FBI, and family.
“Burn Notice” was arguably the cornerstone of USA’s “blue sky” original programming that dominated the aughts and early 2010s, along with the likes of “Monk,” “Psych,” “White Collar,” and “Royal Pains.” USA’s “Characters Welcome” formula resonated with television viewers at the time: The cable channel’s ratings occasionally topped network TV. “Burn Notice” regularly had 5 to 6 million viewers at its peak. For comparison’s sake, USA’s “Mr. Robot” had 1 to 2 million viewers in its first season and dropped below a million in its second. USA achieved this while rarely resorting to “trendy sex or violence.” Instead, USA’s shows employed charm and humor.
These attributes Weston and Bruce Campbell’s Sam Axe had in spades. The show leaned heavily on Weston’s smug, put-upon MacGyver and Axe’s ex-military frat bro as the team (along with Gabrielle Anwar’s Fiona Glenanne) went from thug company of the week to dealing with the overarching plot. Besides the leads, the show had a great knack for guest stars and recurring characters. It’s littered with “Hey that guy (or girl)!” actors, like Tricia Helfer, Garret Dillahunt, Tim Matheson, and Robert Patrick, among many, many others.
The direction and production also made the show fun to watch in the literal sense. The bright, flashy (and often fleshy) scenes and establishing shots always kept the show at the very least visually interesting.
For three or four seasons, “Burn Notice” succeeded by offering an interesting, serialized story that never required your full attention. It was a step above mindless procedural without reaching the heights of today’s “golden age of television.” It was great escapism.
The show grew stale in later seasons. Michael caught his white whale only to find bigger, whiter whales. He continued working for people who burned him or left him for dead. The motivations got murky and the formula too predictable. It became more angst-ridden and less fun. It ended after seven seasons, maybe a little later than it should have. But it deserved all its success and plaudits.
It was a show no one seemed to dislike, even if they didn’t watch it. If they avoided it, it was out of disinterest instead of dislike. “Saturday Night Live” even mocked the weird place “Burn Notice” held in the national consciousness.
USA moved away the “blue sky” programming in 2016. It rebranded for a “darker and grittier” millennial audience and began offering serious, more “prestige” fare like “Mr. Robot,” “Shooter,” and “Colony.” Ratings don’t mean everything, as FX will gladly attest, but none of these shows have hit the viewer numbers that “Burn Notice,” “Royal Pains,” or “Psych” did. Is there still a market for that sort of brand? Maybe USA is testing the waters for a return with the upcoming “Psych” movie.
I love the current era of television. But part of me yearns for the breezy, ephemeral nature of those shows. Something that won’t be binged and think-pieced to death by the next week. Good, fun TV that isn’t draining, but still offers some sort of quality.