10 Ways Burn Notice Brightened the Airwaves – and 10 Crucial Mistakes It Made


Burn Notice concludes its seven year run today.   Its time on the air will be something of a landmark for  NBC/Universal’s USA Network, turning it from a virtual storage shed of old reruns and professional wrestling programs into a hip stop for the coveted 18 to 45 crowd.

But its run was not without its faults.  Here’s a short list of the show’s successes - and its shortcomings.


1: It was that show that everybody watched…

Burn Notice will go down in history as one of the USA Network’s most successful original programs of all time.  Peaking at over six million viewers during season four, it was at one time more popular than USA’s perennial ratings draw Monday Night Raw, besting it by one million viewers over seasons three and four.   The show helped make summer seasons a regular thing and caused the big five networks to sit up and pay attention.  It was so popular at one time that USA started airing it over the winter months to boost their critical November sweeps period.

2: …for awhile.

But the show fell to all-time lows in season 7, reaching a .8 for episode 7.12.  It’s been drawing just 1.8 million viewers all season, and has been regularly defeated by Duck Dynasty.

3: It made spy shows cool again.

Burn Notice was extremely popular, make no mistakes, and popular enough to force the four biggest broadcasting companies in the country to take a look at their original programming and try to emulate it.  The fall schedule for 2010-2011 reflected this and was flooded by breezy action and/or spy shows with snazzy visuals and snappy repartee.  Everything from reboots of Hawaii Five-O and Nikita to the TNT show Leverage and the one-season wonder Undercovers followed in Burn Notice’s flashy steps.  Even the animated spy parody “Archer” shows some seriously Westenian overtones.burn-notice-fiona-glenanne-105-image

4: …Even though no one seemed to understand why.

Remember that sketch Saturday Night Live did that ribbed Burn Notice’s success as a show everyone watched but no one could properly say what it’s about? ( “It’s a show about sunglasses!”).  Remember Aziz Ansari’s routine about the show? (“Who loves Burn Notice?”)  That reflected the show’s place as a goofy summer pleasure that was both extremely popular – and rather lightweight.

5: It was a lot brighter than people gave it credit for…

Did you know the show was based on the memoirs of an actual spy, who worked as a consultant to Matt Nix?  And the spycraft used on the show is dangerously close to what he would use in real life?  The show deliberately left an ingredient or two out of every spy recipe it concocted, ensuring the world’s continued safety.

6: ….But not quite that bright…

Mythbusters has taken on several Burn Notice stunts…and managed to bust several of them, including the notion that you could armorize your car with phone books.

7: It showed the world that people over forty can still kick butt

Not a single character in the first three seasons of Burn Notice is under the age of forty.  In an industry that praises youth, the fact that a series praising the usefulness, toughness and vitality of middle-aged characters with baggage and scars proved something of a mini-revolution in the entertainment world.

It’s no coincidence that The Expendables and Red both became major franchises after Burn Notice showed the world that older characters could be sexy, funny, vital and profitable.

Burn-Notice-Forget-Me-Not8: …but ruined itself by adding a youngster character.

And then came Jesse Porter.  Introduced in season four in the most awkward, grating manner possible, Jesse spent most of his introductory season angrily stomping around, incurring Sam’s wrath, wedging himself between Michael and Fiona and drawing the over sympathy of Madeline, who became Jesse’s surrogate mother in light of the tragic and mysterious shooting death of his own mom, to his  side.   The show worked overtime to convince us that the closely-knit team needed the young pup; unfortunately, Jesse was a bland combination of Michael and Sam that he never really caught on or gelled with the rest of the team.  Only a last-minute pairing of his character with Sam’s  around season six saved the day and allowed portrayer Coby Bell to play Jesse’s cranky, acerbic side.

None of this is the fault of Bell, who is an excellent actor who infused Jesse with sympathy and humor once he was established, but the damage his insertion into the series incurred was obvious and long-lasting; his inclusion.  After a planned Mike/Fi/Jesse triangle faltered, Jesse was shoved into the background, where he lingered for most of seasons five, six, and seven.   With such minimal impact upon the plot, the superfluous nature of his character shows through as a terrible mistake.

9: It was the first USA Network show to be nominated for a prime time Emmy…

Sharon Gless was nominated for the show’s sole acting duke, a Best Supporting Actress Emmy for her interrogation scenes in season three.

10: …but it wasn’t the series Matt Nix wanted it to be.

The show’s glittering, light-hearted look into the life of a spy forced to deal with his past and Miami locals while trying to support himself and get back into the spy biz?  Yeah, that wasn’t show creator Matt Nix’s intent at all.  He originally pitched Burn Notice to the network as a much darker show, but executive meddling resulted in a light-hearted look at the spying life.   Nix has since gotten his way and turned Burn Notice into a much darker show for seasons six and seven…to declining ratings.

11: It committed itself to shocking plot twists…

The sudden death of Nate West, Michael’s leap from a helicopter into the ocean, Michael shooting his handler, the death of Tom Card and Fiona’s turning herself in to protect Michael – all memorable and somewhat shocking moments that propelled story.

12: …but forgot about its character’s cores.

Shocks are all good and compelling, but not when they occur at the expense of what we’ve been told about the characters and who they are.

A prime example is the desecration of Nate Westen.  The character was always portrayed as a loser who managed to get his brother in trouble, but prior to his season 6 death he’d straightened out his life, marrying and gaining a son.  On his way to being shot to death, he shed his marriage and child, lost his job and much of his dignity.  Season 6 spent a ridiculous amount of time deifying him before tearing him down as a “drunk and a loser” in season 7.

13: It made Miami seem cool…

Not only did Burn Notice boost the local economy by shooting entirely on location in Miami, it drew tourist dollars from fans excited to see Carlitos, Michael’s loft and Madeline’s house in person.

14: …But was forced out of its studio by the state of Florida.

Miami’s current governor desperately wanted to bulldoze the Coconut Grove Convention Center to create a park.  Before season seven commenced filming, the producers – armed with a petition from the show’s viewers – begged their case and scored another year’s time in the studio, but

15: It drew unusual guest stars to Miami…

This show featured such diverse guest stars as Burt Reynolds, Lucy Lawless, Tyne Daley, Jere Burns and Grant Show.

16: …But underutilized some of them criminally.

The brilliant Alona Tal exists as nothing more than a temporary wedge between Michael and Fiona, which is a shame because her character’s backstory was potentially explosive.  And let’s not discuss the way the characters of Olivia Riley and Dani Pearce were written off the show.

17: It showed the world that lighthearted dramas weren’t done as a genre… burn-notice-finale-5

And that – while always grittier than Psych – they can still be viable and successful.  Burn Notice’s success allowed USA to greenlight both the Royal Pains and White Collar, which take similarly light-hearted looks at the medical and white collar crime worlds.

18:  …And promptly tried to turn itself into  serious one.

Let’s not talk about how badly season six bungled Burn Notice’s switch from a lighthearted show into a fully dramatic one; season seven continued the trend but added plot holes and.  Grafting a serious plot onto a world where a band of vigilante robin hoods blow up Miami regularly without a single protest has done the show no favors.

19: Most importantly, it launched Jeffrey Donovan and Matt Nix into the stratosphere as major forces in the entertainment industry…

Thanks to the success of Burn Notice, Nix scored his own Fox cop dramady “The Good Guys”, and Jeffrey Donovan became an occasional participant in the works of Clint Eastwood, having fairly hefty roles in “J. Edgar” and “The Changeling.”

20: …but is the entertainment industry ready for them?

“The Good Guys” was cancelled in its second season, and neither of Donovan’s films scored him much in the way of critical respect or box office.    The future  is yet to be written, but Nix does have a medical drama in the works; it’s yet to be told whether or not this untitled drama will be as impactful or successful as Burn Notice was.

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Staff Television Critic: Lisa Fernandes, formerly of Firefox.org, has been watching television for all of her thirty-plus years, and critiquing it for the past seven. When she's not writing, she can be found in the wilds of the Northeastern United States.