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This spy is out in the cold

In `Burn Notice,' Jeffrey Donovan's character has a dark past and uncertain future.

June 27, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

When I was small in what was still a Cold War world, you could sell me anything -- that is to say, you could get me to beg my parents to buy me anything -- simply by putting the word "spy" on it. ("Secret agent" would work too.) There was a lot of that around then, as there is a lot of it around now, but these days mostly dressed in the dark raiment of what for the foreseeable future will be known as "post9/11."

I am, however, more a pre-9/11 sort of person. You can have your torture-absorbing Jack Bauers warding off the new-millennium terrorists of your bad dreams. I'll take Jeffrey Donovan as Michael Westen in USA's delightful new action comedy "Burn Notice." Westen is a freelance CIA subcontractor who finds himself suddenly cut dead and, for not yet explicable reasons, stuck in Miami, his bank accounts frozen, credit cards canceled and his mother calling on his cellphone. Strictly speaking, it isn't a spy show at all, but a kind of detective series featuring a fantastically overqualified hero, with running secondary story lines in which Westen will attempt to unravel the source of his problems, both professional and personal.

Westen's demotion takes him happily (for me) out of the realm of national security (and nationalism); he is more of a piece with the made-up spies of my youth, who fought mostly stateless supercriminals and did it with something like a light heart, a sense of fun and a dry ironic wit that crackled even under attack.

Created by Matt Nix, whose most visible previous works are his short films "Me and the Big Guy" (a "1984" parody) and the Pirandelloesque "Chekhov's Gun," the show floats along on a spy's-handbook narration that sounds remarkably convincing. We learn how to make a listening device from two cellphones; that "in a fight you have to be careful not to break all the little bones in your hand on someone's face"; that when housebreaking "you want to look like a legitimate visitor"; that a spy's best friend is a hardware store. Perhaps it's all true.

Westen is a damaged person. ("A bad childhood is the perfect background for covert ops -- you don't trust anyone, you're used to getting smacked around and you never get homesick.") But he is also a good person, as demonstrated by his helping a child learn to deal with a bully -- a minor sentimental misstep but accomplished with some humor -- and the fact that he is powerless to resist his mother "crying into my shirt." A superb Sharon Gless builds unexpected layers into the role.

The dialogue is always to the point, yet it gives even the bit players enough room to create something memorable. The Russian nightclub owner (another former spy), the money launderer, the art dealer, the FBI agents on Westen's trail -- all are made vivid in short order. There is also the recurring pleasure of lantern-jawed genre icon Bruce Campbell (the "Evil Dead" movies) as an agent turned serial gigolo. Gabrielle Answar's Fiona, an ex-IRA bank robber -- and Michael's ex-girlfriend -- seems to have been created out of a lingering erotic memory of Natascha McElhone in John Frankenheimer's "Ronin." But that is not a bad thing.

There are also some girls in bikinis.


`Burn Notice'

Where: USA

When: 10 to 11 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for violence)

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