The Idylls of Miami: Burn Notice’s Fairy Tale-Esque Narrative

 

My wife and I don’t watch much television. We are young and cable-less. In fact, the only reason that we watch TV at all is because of a great two-part Christmas gift from my mom: Apple TV and her Netflix password. And although my wife and I differ in our taste in television, the one thing that we can always agree on is Burn Notice.

This might be a bit of a dramatic statement, but so what, Burn Notice is the best show ever.

Yes, I said the best. Show. Ever.

Okay, it probably isn’t. Burn Notice is not the most profound or most well-acted show ever, but its overarching greatness is never questioned in the Rynerson household. It’s just so easy to love. It’s winsome, pleasant, and about as wholesome as a show about criminal espionage can be. And it’s absorbing. I would be lying if I said I haven’t had Burn Notice themed dreams… somewhat frequently.

Burn Notice is about an American intelligence operative, Michael Westen, played by Jeffrey Donovan, who has been wrongfully blacklisted from the CIA. Stranded in Miami, Westen has to rely on help from his motley crew of friends: an ex-IRA girlfriend (Gabrielle Anwar), Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell playing a very Bruce Campbelly character), Jesse (the debonair Coby Bell), and Westen’s chain-smoking mom (Sharon Glass). The show is about his quest for restoration, while, you know, gaining a reputation for vigilantism in the greater Miami metropolitan area.

Bruce Campbell

Sound silly and predictable? It kind of is. But the silliness and predictability is more idyllic than idiotic. The characters are mythical heroes, whose victory is never really in doubt. This makes Burn Notice such a fantastic escape from reality. Maybe it is a betrayal of my “artistic sensibilities” (whatever those may be), but Burn Notice is a therapeutic experience.

Michael Westen is a first-class protagonist. He is cool, calm, collected, and possesses a wealth of information and expertise. His meta-narration of hazardous situations is one of my favorite plot devices ever. But Westen has just enough inner conflict and dynamic characteristics to keep him a little bit unpredictable. Fiona, Westen’s longtime on-again-off-again romance is a likable character, despite her mild sociopathic tendencies. But the bow on top of the Burn Notice cast is Bruce Campbell, complete with witty B-movie dialogue and lovable day drinking. All together, the cast works well together in creating consistent believability in the preposterous world of Burn Notice.

The episodes, operating as a self-contained story, work along with a slower overarching multi-season plot that is pretty sophisticated and involved. And even when dealing with serious subject matters like betrayal, obsession, slavery, and treason, the characters and the exposition keep Burn Notice idyllic.

Predictability, however, does not mean that the show lacks creativity, depth, or intrigue. Its two key components: the characters and the faithfulness of the writing, create the dynamic nature of the show.

And what makes it all work is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Even in the last two seasons as the writers have taken the show into deeper and darker content, the show keeps a light, watchable tone. But in the Burn Notice world, nothing else would be believable. It’s a world where tragedy is the exception, not the rule.

Burn Notice has created a good world. Evil exists as a curable, obvious, and diagnosable disease that enters into the system of a mostly good ecosystem. The power of the story isn’t so much in its believability as in its fairy-tale-esque echo. Michael Westen spends his time and talent saving the untalented, weak, and marginalized that have been victimized by evil. Westen and his company act as savior.

The longing for good, and more than that, the tangible and defined evil make Burn Notice a theological echo in the vein of The Brothers Karamazov or Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Evil can’t hide and lives in the extremes. And goodness is never anything but pure, always triumphing over wickedness. Just like I’ve so often wished the world worked.

I can assume audiences (like my wife and I) resonate with Burn Notice because it rings of these longings. Longings for salvation, goodness, and a world clearly defined. There is power in stories with this sort of cartoonish exaggeration because the gospel story offers similar preposterous resolutions to the very human pining for complete redemption.

Now in it’s seventh and final season, Burn Notice has given my wife and I a rightful expectation of fulfillment. The show has been slowly working towards a culmination and final defeat of evil. And while throughout the first two episodes there is relational disharmony between the heroes, I am hopeful that reconciliation is close at hand.

And while this is a long and eccentric way to discuss a USA Network television show, there is real power in its stories. It’s a power that brings to mind the certainty of the narrative of the gospel. And the hope that I feel when I engage these fictional characters is merely an echo of the story that God is working in the world, and one day, evil will be vanquished as easily as Michael Westen and Co. make it seem.

 

About Nick Rynerson

Nick Rynerson lives in Normal, Illinois (no, seriously). In his free time, He writes, attempts to play mandolin, reads and hangs out with his groovy wife. Nick has a soft spot for any song with a banjo and thinks Bruce Campbell is the best actor on earth. However, he is a terrible golfer and has particular distaste internet controversy . Nick is passionate about the Church, (lower case) orthodoxy and whatever he's been reading about recently.

Follow Nick on Twitter: @Nick_Rynerson
or at his website: nickrynerson.com

  • Matthew Nix

    I have a rule that I never respond to press on Burn Notice, but… I’m violating it in this case.I just wanted to thank you for your thoughtful analysis of the show, which made my day. I read it aloud to some of my writers today, as inspiration.

    When you’re doing an action drama on the USA network, you don’t get a lot of reviewers paying attention to theme or moral perspective. Which is sometimes disheartening, since that’s a huge part of what we talk about in the writer’s room. Thank you for, you know, noticing. Oh, and thank your wife, too. :)

    -Matt Nix
    Creator/Showrunner, Burn Notice


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