By John Keegan and Edmund Boys
“Burn Notice” has returned and, right from the opening, things have changed. Fiona is no longer Michael's ex (at least one season too late). Jesse is an official member of Team Westen (still haven't figured out his role in the team, but now he does have a place in the credits). But, after evolving into sometime participant and full-time conscience, Maddy is still being dissed as the option to go to only “if you're desperate.” Why do I highlight these changes? Because after that, everything was pretty much the same.
In this age of uncertain renewals for almost all shows, the two-part episode that bridges seasons has become a rare bird. Producers are leery of setting themselves up for a cliffhanger that may remain perpetually suspended. (Personally, I'm still waiting to see who survived the plane crash on “Crime Story.”) “Burn Notice'”s two season pick-up gave the producers the luxury of reviving the format. Unfortunately, this iteration is far from the “Best of Both Worlds”, the Next Generation episode that set the standard.
Last season's 'cliffhanger' was Fiona turning herself in to the FBI. Picking up right where they left off, Fiona is hustled into the Federal Building , straight into a semi-hallucinatory perp walk. The slow-mo and blurry focus usually signals a flashback, and sure enough, Fiona spies a little girl sure to remind her of some childhood memory. But no incident with, let's say, her IRA father, illustrative of her current plight or her relationship with Michael, is forthcoming. Instead she is led into an interrogation with Agent Jason Bly, who returns from the second season having regained the chip on his shoulder about Michael. (They'd mended fences back in season 2, but perhaps it was hoped we'd have forgotten that.)
That's where Fiona's plotline grinds to a thudding halt. Bly's technique is a ham-fisted blend of intimidation and misdirection that never credibly threatens Fi's loyalty to Michael. His attempt to trick her into believing Michael has blown himself up shouldn’t have survived her first look at the photos. Having her agree to cooperate, and only then demand to see the photos that would explode his duplicity, would have been much truer to her character.
The combination of her plight and Anson’s escape from the botched CIA operation at the airport have driven Michael close to the edge. However, the attempts to make us believe he is out of control are hamstrung by lines they cannot cross. While he does hijack a truck at gunpoint, he still ensures its conversion into a roadblock occurs without mishap. He does pull a gun on Sam, but I never believed he’d pull the trigger. USA is just not a network where the heroes are allowed to completely lose it.
But worse than that, we are still saddled with Anson, the saddest excuse for an arch-villain this side of Austin Powers. His skill as a master manipulator and tactician remains self-proclaimed and unsupported by his actions. I had fervently hoped the producers would recognize his weaknesses and finally usher him off. Instead we continue to endure the main characters being dumbed down to compensate. Sam has to remind Michael that Jesse can be pulled off traffic camera duty to check on Maddy. Although that does allow Sharon Gless to save the day, and once again belie her opening credits image. Meanwhile, Sam and Michael waltz into the chemical plant where Anson is holed up with no regard for security, or dangerous conditions.
In the most egregious instance, Michael believes the box Anson just pulled out of his pocket (!) is a dead-man switch. Because if it’s just the detonator it appears to be, Michael can deliver the kill shot he promised just before. Perhaps it’ll come out later Anson was bluffing, but again that relies on diminishing Michael’s abilities. It all leads to Anson’s getaway, presumably to continue as this season’s ersatz nemesis.
Last season, Agent Pearce had whiplash-inducing swings from Michael’s ally to antagonist. This time, she pulls it off in one episode. First, she refuses to aid Michael’s wild goose chase, for the very sound reason that she has to clean up after his airport debacle. Then, once she learns who the target is, I was sure Anson’s innocuous record, thanks to Michael’s deletions last season, would lead her to dismiss Michael’s ravings. Pushing Michael back out of the CIA’s good graces, after getting so close, would have restored some of the show’s original balance with a nice ironic twist. Instead, she is magically brought around, even bringing a team to the chemical plant to help.
While we knew the show had built a story arc around its two-season renewal, my hopes for a retool after last season’s misfires have gone begging. This premiere continued everything from last season, warts and all. While it had action and explosions, and a great moment for Maddy, too much felt forced and out of character. Taking people out of their comfort zone can indicate great drama (Joan on "Mad Men", for instance), but sometimes it’s just a sign of running out of ideas. I fear we may be in for a season of the latter.John Keegan is Editor-in-Chief for Critical Myth, a partner site of SciFi Vision. Edmund Boys is Critical Myth's reviewer for Burn Notice.