After more than eight years writing feature scripts that may have sold but were rarely produced, Matt Nix learned this summer that it's true what they say about Hollywood: It takes 10 years to be an overnight success.
Nix's "Burn Notice," an action comedy about a blacklisted covert operations agent, starring Jeffrey Donovan, turned out to be one of the summer's top new original shows on basic cable. The audience grew by word of mouth, up to a respectable 4 million viewers, and USA Network renewed the series after just four episodes. The two-hour season finale airs at 9 Thursday night.
Often compared to '80s action comedies like "MacGyver" or "Magnum, P.I.," "Burn Notice" features smarty-pants dialogue and as much Miami street action as a basic cable network can afford. While the genre is familiar, "Burn Notice" has surprised viewers with a smart, savvy edge that seems fresh. Donovan, a master of the cheesy ingratiating smile, provides a first-person narrative in the wry voice of agent Michael Westen, who busies himself with vigilante justice while trying to find out who "burned" him at the CIA.
Not surprisingly, Westen sounds a lot like Nix, a boyish 36 with a nearly constant, one-sided smile. Fascinated by the details of spy techniques, Nix packed the voiceover with plenty of pithy lessons such as: "When you make somebody work for a piece of information, they'll believe it that much more because it's hard to get."
Westen also comments on his mother (Sharon Gless), "Asking my mom for anything is a lot like getting a favor from a Russian mob boss: They'll give you what you want with a smile, but believe me, you'll pay for it." There are also character-revealing asides about "an old friend who's informing on you to the FBI" (Bruce Campbell) and a "trigger-happy ex-girlfriend" (Gabrielle Anwar).
Recently, Nix took a break from working on the European version of the show, donned his "Burn Notice" cap, and walked, unrecognized, from the show's nondescript office in downtown Glendale to his favorite sushi restaurant down the street. He said he never intended to update '80s action comedy shows; rather, he backed into the genre through his attraction to spy technology and his trademark dark humor. "It's sort of hybrid vigor," he said.
After a grueling first season full of late nights and rewrites, Nix compared his television experience to being force-fed his favorite foods at gunpoint. "Every bite is delicious, but it's a staggering amount of work," he said.
"After working in features for eight years and never seeing a word produced that I didn't pay for myself or direct on my own, it's exciting and fun to write a script out in longhand and have a crew of 200 people shoot it right then. It's terrifying and thrilling."
As a new show-runner, he also imparted a few lessons he's learned himself. For instance:
You have to write what you know and what you wish you knew.
Nix said he grew up hearing he was the most sarcastic person anyone had known. "I prefer to think of myself as ironic," he said. He was frequently in trouble for making outrageous statements that teachers, say, didn't take as humorous. Now, he said, "I really like writing lovable sociopaths. I'm a crazy rule follower."
For the specifics of criminal operations in "Burn Notice," Nix said he turned to a friend, Michael Wilson, who he said had worked in "private intelligence" for years.
"It's like being a consultant for companies that have business internationally," he explained. "You need to know things like 'How's that regime going to work out?' or -- and I'm making this up -- if you're doing business in a region run by warlords and you don't want to meet with them, you hire somebody."
Consequently, he said Westen "talks like me and acts like the opposite of me."
It won't ruin the tension in the show if on-again/off-again couples sleep together.
"Everyone was asking me, 'When are Michael and Fiona going to get together?' The conventional answer on television is that people with rocky relationships can never have sex. Then the tension is gone," Nix said. One night, working late, Donovan asked him if Westen could fight with Fiona since his fights had been limited to bad guys. In their case, one thing would lead to another. "I realized in my experience people with on-again/off-again relationships are always having sex. Having sex doesn't release any tension at all," Nix said. "It makes it worse."
Sometimes it's important to compromise.
Nix said he had originally written a darker comedy set in Newark, N.J. The executives at USA praised his scripts throughout the rewrite process but kept asking in vain for him to move the setting to Miami to lighten things up. "I said, 'I still feel strongly about Newark.' I did another draft. They said, 'This is even better and now it's set in Miami.' And I said, 'OK, sir, it's set in Miami.' "
Now, he said he likes Miami better. "It's so much more fun to have this dark character highlighted against this background. Nobody's ever done a show about a guy in a tropical vacation wonderland who hates being in a tropical vacation wonderland.
And sometimes you just can't.
On the other hand, Nix said he had to learn to reject some quality writing from his staff to retain the show's tone. "I'm responsible for making the show sound like it's supposed to sound. It either needs to feel like something I wrote or something I wish I wrote."
Sometimes, he said he tells writers: "This is hilarious. I would never make this joke and I'm taking it out. But it's great."