Burn Notice: Season Three
R1 - America - Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (29th August 2010).
The Show

Bruce Campbell. Those two words are the reason – the sole reason – that I sometimes watch “Burn Notice” on the USA Network. To be frank, my viewing habits of the series are sporadic at best. I usually only catch a few episodes here and there in midday reruns or during the occasional mini-marathon, and honestly, when it’s not on, I’m not eagerly awaiting episodes by any means. Campbell drew me in – because I’ll sample any movie or TV show he does at least once – and however sporadically my habits have been, I’ve stayed with the show. That’s not to say that “Burn Notice” is particularly gripping, or incredibly original – it’s not; it’s a straight-up spy-thriller with very few truly surprising twists-n-turns – but, neither is it a skippable piece of junk. Instead, I’ll say that, like so many of USA’s recent programs, “Burn Notice” isn’t what I’d call required viewing, but it is a serviceable way to kill some time.

Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), a now-former intelligence agent for the United States government, has been disavowed, or given his "burn notice", for crimes he didn’t actually commit. Reluctantly, he returned home to Miami, Florida, where he's been “comforted” by friends and family – namely, his feisty and dangerous old flame, Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), an ex-informant for the FBI named Sam Axe (that’d be the excellent Mr. Bruce Campbell) and Michael’s dear ol’ mom, Madeline (Sharon Gless). Westen can’t leave the city for fear that he will be hunted down by the Government or law enforcement and arrested, or more probably, killed. He has no real applicable skills in the “normal world”, but also has had no access to his numerous accounts, so he takes odd jobs as a private investigator and spy-for-hire, using his special ops training, to make some money. Michael solves cases, which can involve anything from solving a kidnapping or locating deadbeat dads, to fighting off war criminals, outsmarting drug dealers, taking down gangsters, besting gun runners and just flat out beating plain-old dirty thugs. He does all this with the help of Sam and his girlfriend, just so that he makes ends meet; if he helps the community too, it's just a bonus. Westen works these cases, all the while he searches for the people who “burned” him. These odd jobs and Michael’s ongoing quest to find his detractors provide the basic concept on which the show is built.

In the second season a woman named Carla (played by Tricia Helfer of “Battlestar Galactica” (2003-2009)), an agent of the company who framed him, contacts Michael, and forces him to work with her, where he soon uncovers an assassination plot. Michael further discovers that the reason he’s been relatively free of problems from foreign agents who want him dead, law enforcement that should want him in prison and the other problems you would expect to encounter as a rogue agent left to fend for yourself, is that “management” (represented by a mysterious man played by John Mahoney) has been protecting him. In the second season’s finale Michael is given a choice: accept a job that the company is offering, or, if he declines, Westen will be hung out to try. His protection will be revoked, foreign agencies will be able to track him down, and he will no longer be “off the grid” so to speak. Rather than accept their ultimatum, Michael jumps from the helicopter (in which this conversation is taking place) directly into the open water below. And so begins season three, all 16 episodes of which are spread across four discs; four episodes per disc, in one complete package:

- "Friends and Family" - After washing up on shore – remember, he jumped into the ocean from a “Management” helicopter – Michael is questioned by the Miami police (who think he’s an illegal immigrant), and is imprisoned after he fails to provide a reasonable explanation as to why he has no ID, and more importantly, how he came to walk out of the water. An old colleague, Harlan (Brian Van Holt) bails him out, but asks for a favor in return.

- "Question and Answer" - On Michael’s birthday, Detective Paxson of the Miami PD (Moon Bloodgood) uncovers a storage unit filled with explosives and other illicit materials, which can be tied back to the burnt ex-spy. Meanwhile, Michael, Fiona and Sam investigate a case of kidnapping with the hope that they can return a couple’s missing son unharmed.

- "End Run" - Brennen (Jay Karnes), a dangerous arms dealer, holds Michael’s brother Nate (Seth Peterson) hostage as a means of forcing Michael to do a job for him. As if that weren’t enough to worry about, Detective Paxson is closing in on Michael with each passing day.

- "Fearless Leader" - Michael, Fiona and Sam go undercover to bring down a crime lord wanted by the Miami Police Department. As Paxson edges closer to finding out the truth about Agent Michael Westen, Fiona and Michael hatch a plan to turn in the criminal in exchange for being left alone. Meanwhile, a grim, meddling IRS agent audits Sam.

- "Signals and Codes" - While seeking a new CIA contact, Michael meets a mentally disturbed mathematician (Michael Weston (seriously)) who presents convincing evidence that someone within his company is selling the names of undercover agents to outside sources via encrypted computer code.

- "The Hunter" - When a helpful man named Tom Strickler (Ben Shenkman) comes to Michael with information about an old Ukrainian nemesis, the ex-spy intrigued. An interested Michael turns to John Beck (Keith Diamond), a man “in-the-know”, to find out more about the agent from the former Eastern Bloc, but both are quickly captured, and then chased through the Florida Everglades. Meanwhile, Sam and Fiona, fearing that Michael has been kidnapped, seek information from Strickler.

- "Shot in the Dark" - While Michael attempts to gather more information on the mysterious “agent to the spies” Tom Strickler, a young boy tries to steal one of his guns. Michael decides to help the boy after he explains why he needed the weapon – to deal with an abusive stepfather, who is threatening to take custody from the boy’s birth mother.

- "Friends Like These" - Presented with a chance to clear his “burn notice”, Michael finally takes one of Strickler’s jobs, despite a warning from Fiona who doesn’t trust their new acquaintance. Meanwhile, Barry the-money-launderer (Paul Tei), who’s helped Michael with serious problems in many previous episodes, cashes in a favor and asks Michael for help in retrieving a stolen ledger full of client Intel.

- "Long Way Back" - The good news: Michael’s case is being reviewed by the agency, and his “burn notice” might be revoked. The bad news: Fiona is leaving him, and heading back to Ireland. The really bad news: before she can leave, Fiona’s brother Sean (Gideon Emery) suddenly turns up claiming that someone is in Miami, and has plans to kill her.

- "A Dark Road" - Michael’s search for a killer who murdered his CIA contact is interrupted when Fiona uncovers an insurance scammer who is laying prey against old widows. Meanwhile, Michael’s mom might be in jeopardy when she befriends a mysterious man who could be tied to the investigation.

- "Friendly Fire" - Michael’s old friend Mack (Rus Blackwell) asks for his help with catching a child predator, but their investigation ends up igniting a gang war (and one of the gang leaders is Machete (Danny Trejo!)). Michael also makes contact with the murderer he’s been hunting, but only after the killer requests Westen’s services.

- "Noble Causes" - A freelance psychopath, Mason Gilroy (Chris Vance) enlists Michael’s help to acquire a file locked away in a impenetrable consulate, which forces Westen to work with a dangerous thief named Claude (Simon Needham). Also, Sugar (Arturo Fernandez), a drug-dealing former-friend of Michael, asks the latter to help his mentally challenged cousin whom he thinks is unknowingly part of a heist.

- "Enemies Closer" - Michael’s old partner, Larry Sizemore (Tim Matheson), arrives unannounced and, yep, he needs the former agent’s help to clean up a pretty big mess. Meanwhile, Michael’s brother shows up again, much to Michael and Madeline’s surprise, with a new wife named Ruth (Kylee Cochran). On a side note: although I was a little apprehensive about this episode – the person-from-Michael’s-past-who-desperately-need-his-help shtick is getting a little tiring – Matheson’s presence, and genuine character growth for Westen makes this episode actually not at all bad.

- "Partners in Crime" - Sam and Michael’s case is turned upside down when their client, a fashion designer (Christina Moore) who hired them to find out who was stealing from her, is found dead. Meanwhile, Fiona needs Michael’s help finding out what Mason Gilroy is really up to.

- "Good Intentions" - Fiona takes a job for an old friend, a man named Coleman (Jonathan LaPaglia), who is involved in a violent kidnapping ring. This forces Michael’s work for Gilroy to come to an end – for now – as he decides he needs to rescue her from a conflict that is obviously out of her grasp. Also, Michael tips off some of Sam’s old FBI buddies – agent’s Harris (Marc Macaulay) and Lane (Brandon Morris) – as to Mason Gilroy’s whereabouts.

- "Devil You Know" - In the season finale, Michael confronts his alter ego – Simon (Garret Dillahunt), the man who really committed the crimes that Westen is charged with. Mason is dead, or so Sam says, and Michael must fend off the encroaching FBI and Miami PD, who are dangerously close to finding him.

In all, I’d say that “Burn Notice’s” third season is likely it’s best. It’s certainly the least silly, almost like creator Matt Nix and the rest of the crew decided to cut the fat, trim the funny and get on down to business. I’m not saying that the third season is all seriousness – it still has some of the charm, and most of the humor (usually from Bruce Campbell, but you sort of expected that, no?) of the earlier seasons. However, at the same time, each episode seems to progress the over-arching story in some form, and while the earlier season had plenty of standalone (dare I say throwaway) episodes that just left a “meh” on my mind, season three doesn’t. Whether the progression comes from the main plot of an episode – like in “Signals and Codes”, “The Hunter”, “Noble Causes”, “Enemies Closer” and “Devil You Know” – or as a subplot in the other episodes not mentioned specifically, the feeling of a plot moving forward is present from beginning to end. “Burn Notice” has stronger production values and leaner, more focused writing than ever before, the cast is at worst good (and some of them, like Campbell and Donovan, are excellent) – in short, this is a very well done show, especially now that they have most of the kinks worked out. And yet, there’s something about “Burn Notice” that I just can’t seem to shake: a stigma, apathy… something. Even though I enjoyed myself with these 16 episodes, I’m still not jumping to grab the newest season (which is currently airing as a Summer series on cable) off the DVR or eagerly waiting to get my hands on the DVD of season four. My lack of a strong interest in the series is just something I can’t explain, and perhaps I never will be able to. Then again, maybe my indifference comes from the fact that the show's premise isn’t all that original, or that I’ve seen most of the plot developments before, in other series – like various seasons of “Alias” (2001-2006); the cases have a very “Leverage-y” (2008-present) feel at times too – and in movies (Jason Bourne, anyone?) that did it first, better.

Video

“Burn Notice: Season Three” comes to DVD with an inconsistent, mostly ugly 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that is a clear step down from the 1080i high definition broadcast that I’m used to – which is sort of to be expected, but even so the show is visually unappealing. Frustratingly, Fox has decided to skip a Blu-ray release for season three, even though the put out a 1080p rendering of the previous season, presumably because of the less-than-stellar reviews of the season two set and low sales.

I can’t think of too many shows that intentionally try to look like crap. In fact, outside of a few pseudo-documentaries, I can’t think of one… except for “Burn Notice” that is. Whatever the reason, the cinematographers, directors and show runners behind USA Network’s top-rated secret-agent-on-the-run-thriller think that a thick, distractingly grained, oversaturated aesthetic with severely blown out contrast is the right choice for what is, at it’s most basic, a by-the-book spy procedural. Perhaps the hot color temperature and blistering contrast is supposed to remind us that Michael has been “burned?” Or that Florida is a “hot” place, not only in climate, but in crime too? At any rate, the series’ look is definitely intentional – purposefully shot on 16mm film, and tweaked to high heaven via a digital intermediate on computer. The results: overcooked skintones, flash-burnt exteriors, super-saturated colors (to the point where reds and other bright colors begin to fringe) and coarse, distracting grain – basically, the show looks pretty awful on DVD. To be fair, “Burn Notice” looks pretty bad even in HD, but the tight bandwidth, over-compression, and low-resolution of the standard definition DVD format doesn’t do the already problematic source any favors. At their worst the DVD's can be blocky, noisy and soft. Banding is frequently a nuisance, as are artifacts; there’s even a bit of aliasing, and, I’ll be damned if I didn’t see a bit of smeary ghosting too. Sure, there are scenes that look decent, or even good, but those are few and far between, and while “Burn Notice” will never look as good as other shows simply because of the creative decisions behind-the-scenes, I think that skipping the option for Blu-ray was a mistake; the additional bandwidth alone would remedy most of the compression and aliasing issues. Season two may have gotten rotten reviews for picture quality, and deservedly so, but season three’s DVD set is even less appealing.

Audio

“Burn Notice” is outfitted with a surprisingly unexciting English Dolby Digital 5.1 (48kHz/448kbps) soundtrack. I don’t want to say that the mix is weak – it’s not, dialogue is clear and prioritized, clarity is fine, and there’s a bit of bass here and there – but I expected a series full of explosions, gun fights, and other action oriented sequences to be much more aggressive, or at the very least, to make use of the rear surround channels a little more often. This is a perfectly acceptable mix, and it sounds like it’s fairly faithful to the USA HD broadcast that I’m used to. The show doesn’t sound bad at all; just a little understated. A little reserved. And, well, that surprised me.
Subtitles are available in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese.

Extras

It seems to be disappointing trend in the TV on DVD (and to a lesser extent, the TV on Blu-ray) market these days, but “Burn Notice”, like so many other series, is increasingly light on supplements. Perhaps it’s the quicker and quicker turn around time between air of episodes and the street date of the complete season on home video that doesn’t give actors, writers and series creators nearly enough time to record audio commentaries or sit down for an interview. Then again, perhaps Executives are finding that customers will buy a show, as long as they like it, no matter if any effort is put forth in the area of value added extras, and so they skimp on the bonus material to cut costs. Both seem likely, and regardless of the reason, the point remains: for every “Mad Men” (2007-Present) and “Leverage” there are probably ten more TV series on DVD (and Blu-ray) like “Burn Notice”, which has little more than 20 minutes of insignificant fluff via a pair of featurettes (oh, and there are some bonus trailers too). The meat of the supplements, the two featurettes, reside on the fourth and final disc in the package. All video-based material is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, unless otherwise noted.

DISC ONE:

The only supplements are a couple of pre-menu bonus trailers for:

- “White Collar: Season One” on Blu-ray and DVD. 41 seconds, in non-anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen.
- “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” 2 minute 28 seconds, in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen.

DISCS TWO & THREE:

No extras are included on these discs.

DISC FOUR:

“Smash, Crash, Boom” is a featurette detailing the series special effects and stunt work. Fans get a look at the preparation and execution of the action sequences, and the crew talks about the complications of working on a tight television budget. This piece is short, but informative. Runs 9 minutes 45 seconds.

The second featurette is an excerpt from the shows 2009 Comic-con Panel. Both Jeffrey Donovan and Gabrielle Anwar are absent, but that doesn’t matter because Bruce freakin' Campbell tells enough jokes, and does enough to entertain – and enlighten – the crowd that the fact they’re missing is near irrelevant. Again, this s a pretty short piece, running 10 minutes 4 seconds.

Packaging

“Burn Notice: Season Three” includes all 16 episodes on four discs. The set is packaged in a standard size keep case and does not include a slipcover, box or sleeve. Oddly, although 20th Century Fox previously released the second season of the series on both DVD and Blu-ray, they’ve returned to standard-def DVD only for Season Three.

Overall

“Burn Notice” isn’t required viewing. It’s not a bad show by any means, but it isn’t anything new, exciting or special either, and I’m still not totally sold on the show. Nevertheless, season three is the series’ strongest entry yet, and with three more seasons in production of some form right now, I have a feeling that, as the actors, writers and other crew settle in, the product will steadily improve, and, by the time the sixth and final season rolls around, Michael Westen and crew will be fully realized characters in a show that has established an original identity. Or, at least I hope that’s what happens. Fox’s 4-disc DVD set isn’t all that spectacular: a problematic video presentation doesn’t translate to standard definition DVD all that well, the show has unexpectantly reserved audio and some fairly weak extras; decidedly worth a look, but not an eager one.

The Show: C+ Video: C- Audio: B- Extras: D Overall: C

 


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