The first three seasons were fun because Michael Weston (he’s a former covert agent, in case you didn’t know), Fiona, his Dana Scully-esque sparring partner, and Bruce Campbell as Bruce Campbell had stellar chemistry, outwitting every loan shark and druglord unlucky enough to live anywhere near Miami. However, back in Season Three, I was afraid I’d get bored if the show kept doing the same thing over and over.
Season Four started out in a way that worried me. A new main character—Jesse Porter, a disgraced government operative Michael accidentally framed—was introduced as a part of a new story arc about Michael feeling justifiably guilty about putting someone else in the exact same situation he hates being in. Anyway, these arcs are time that could instead be spent snarking at and beating up more unsuspecting terrorists of the week. And then, there was a turn of genius.
Jesse’s woe-is-me story arc came to a predictable dead end. And then, instead of the normal, unsatisfying, “to be continued” crawl that translates into “we’ll have another Chinese nest egg of questions and answers that actually answers nothing,” something else happened. The cast’s internal struggles to accept that they might never really know why they were victimized become ground zero of the show and the real focus of its subsequent arcs. They had to move on with life! The writers intentionally made its conspiracy arc almost completely irrelevant to their futures! The characters were forced to change drastically as people even though the format of the episodes stayed essentially identical. And, despite the name of the show, in the Season Four finale, Michael ended up finding new employment by a shadowy agency (is there any other kind?). The relationship of the characters shifted as Michael found new priorities entering his life. His long-standing commitment to helping Miami’s downtrodden and semi-romancing Fiona that had just been accepted, unchanging features of the series were put into conflict with the demands of a secret full-time career.
Juggling his competing priorities has caused him to actually move in on Fiona since the beginning of Season Five—shocking, as their relationship hadn’t really developed in the preceding years. Michael got a move on it lest he lose his chance at the girl he cared about. All of the characters have also verbally admitted that they’re a little tired of trying to find answers to whatever conspiracies they’ve been chasing for the last few years. The “to be continued” at the end of arc episodes have been acknowledged as frustrating to the characters—like it would be in real life—and they’ve moved on, growing up in the process.
Networks and executives are skeptical of story-heavy shows like Lost and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica for legitimate business reasons (and I enjoyed the new BSG). It’s hard for new viewers to jump into an episode on the air without starting at the beginning. That’s something many people don’t have the time or patience to do, and that’s understandable. At the same time, decades of hitting the reset button at the end of every episode has to come to an end at some point (people born before the internet might think of M.A.S.H., which ran four times longer than the Korean War it was based on). Burn Notice has neatly resolved both of these concerns in its most recent incarnation. The standalone episodes that are its strength have been promoted far above its arc episodes, and even those are creeping towards being more self-contained serials lately.
Lost was unsatisfying to some because the characters’ history and development was inextricably tied to the mystery of what the island was. In other words, there was little primary focus on character building for its own sake; this is something I enjoy greatly, so Lost appealed less to me the more convoluted and esoteric its central plot threads became. Mysteries for their own sake are often inferior to characterization for its own sake, because only one of these is intrinsically human.
Whichever point you start at in Burn Notice, you can travel back and forth in time to see the genesis and actual evolution of these characters—to say nothing of Jesse Porter’s stormy introduction and subsequent acceptance in Season Four. Much more critically lauded shows like The X-Files tried to mix new protagonists with old ones and ran aground as a direct result. Burn Notice has become almost entirely about the characters and their experiences instead of conspiracies; the most uninitiated in a show’s mythology can understand people. Michael Weston, Fiona, and Jesse are their own story arcs. Bruce Campbell as Bruce Campbell is a story arc. I’ll sit through a marathon of that any day.