BE PREPARED: Jeffrey Donovan’s Michael Westen is such a straight hero, you could imagine him in an ad for Arrow shirts.
In the popular imagination, the spy is always cool, sophisticated, elegant — in other words, European. The American contribution to pop imagination, the private eye, is more suited to our native character: brash, wisecracking, two-fisted.
One of the great jokes on Burn Notice, which is now in its second season on USA (Thursdays at 10 pm), is that it gives us an American spy who is neither a Continental wanna-be nor a shamus by another name. Instead, Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) is another established American icon: the Boy Scout.
Resourceful, industrious, clean-cut, helpful to others, honest (okay, a practiced undercover con man, but only in the name of righting wrongs), Michael, as played by Donovan, is such a straight hero, you could imagine him in an ad for Arrow shirts. Even his cravings are healthy: he consumes so much yogurt that manufacturers must be fighting one another to buy ad time on the show.
The premise of Burn Notice, which was created by Matt Nix, is that Michael, a spy for some unnamed US agency, is abruptly “burned.” That is, he’s deprived of his clearance and his identification, his assets are frozen, and he’s dumped in a city — in his case Miami — on a kind of indefinite probation.
The backstory has Michael trying to discover who burned him and why. And the show’s creators are smart enough to treat his quest as comic investigatus interruptus. Every week, he’s guilt-tripped into helping some poor sap who’s stumbled into a situation that requires someone to outsmart a set of baddies who think they’re infallible. What follows, in voiceover and deftly edited sequences, is the meeting of Bob Vila, Mr. Wizard, and 007’s Q, in which Michael concocts surveillance devices, booby traps, and other handy gadgets from — all together now — common household items.
Since gadgets by themselves don’t get the job done, Michael’s good deeds entail luring the bad guys into a con. And it’s then that Amesbury native Donovan, posing as some overeager or impossibly cool player, really shines. He lays on the kind of Boston accent that Matt Damon fakes and Mark Wahlberg does naturally, and the result is peculiarly American: refusing to be intimidated by the villains he’s putting the squeeze on, he acts like a Southie kid who’s lucked his way into Hugo Boss suits and who eyes every sharpster who crosses his path as some foreigner not to be trusted. He’s a sharpie in lout’s finery, and what tickles you is the surface brashness and buried shrewdness.
The creators have also given Michael a crew of gifted second bananas. Gabrielle Anwar as Michael’s ex Fi (short for Fiona, rhymes with tea), a former IRA terrorist, and Bruce Campbell as Michael’s buddy Sam, a retired Navy SEAL, are spectacularly funny. The hatred Fi and Sam express toward each other has nothing to do with buried attraction and, as critic Laura Miller has pointed out, everything to do with the jealousy of warring siblings vying for a parent’s attention. Whenever violence threatens to break out, Anwar shows both an excited gleam and contentment, anticipation and afterglow, all in one.
Campbell, whose lantern jaw is now padded with flesh (it matches his gut) and lined with bearish stubble, has the utter lack of vanity that can make a performer seem more appealing, even sexier, than the most chiseled he-men. In a succession of Tommy Bahama shirts swaddling his girth, he acts as if he were the hottest thing going and nearly convinces you. Anwar and Campbell — each afforded a chance to savor the sight of the other one getting tossed around — put on something like a deadpan Punch and Judy show, where withering looks replace the battering. When he’s around their squabbling, Michael does a slow burn that never erupts. This spy isn’t just a Boy Scout, he’s a den mother.