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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (2/22/09) 10:57pm - ... wherein Peter does his first TV homework assignment:  a summary of Burn Notice.

You'll recall that in the first session of the TV-writing class, our assignment was to write a description of a TV show in current production.  We are to send in a written copy of the assignment tomorrow, and deliver the same information as a five-minute oral presentation in class on Tuesday.

I figured I'd post my first draft here so that innocentsmith people could sanity-check my work.

(And yes, I need to cut this down from ~800 words to ~600 words.)

Peter Rogers
TV Class
Homework #1:  Series Summary for Burn Notice

Burn Notice is an hourlong light-action drama on the USA network.  It's about a spy who gets fired and has to get by on freelance work.

The spy is Michael Westen, and he's very good at what he does.  He holds two black belts and (as he puts it) he's "rated with anything that fires a bullet or holds an edge."  He can MacGyver together bombs, surveillance equipment, and booby traps.  He can run elaborate cons, assuming various identities in the process.  He has a wide net of contacts among the intelligence and criminal communities.  In his day, he was a legend.  Russian operatives assumed that "Michael Westen" couldn't possibly have been just one man.

In the first episode, Michael gets fired.  In the middle of a job in Nigeria, his government contact tells him, "We got a burn notice on you.  You're blacklisted.  I'm sorry," and hangs up.  A burn notice is a bad thing.  It's a government announcement that a spy is no longer reliable.  It means the government freezes his assets, wipes out all records of him, dumps him in Miami, and tells him to never leave.

So how does Michael make ends meet?  Well, he does jobs for people.  He helps his landlord get rid of a bothersome drug dealer.  He helps a friend of a friend with a repo job.  Soon he's working as an unlicensed P. I. -- as he puts it, "helping the little guy kick some bully's ass."

In a typical episode, Michael meets a client who's been wronged by some high-powered criminal -- an old lady who's been taken by a team of con artists, say, or a store owner being muscled out of business by a local gang.  Michael tries not to take the case, but his conscience gets the better of him.  Soon he's doing (as the showrunner puts it) "crazy spy stuff" to take down the bad guys -- some combination of conning, surveilling, and brute force.  Plan A never works, and plan B usually gets derailed by some last-minute mistake.  Plan C is usually off-the-charts crazy.

In the meantime, Michael explains, in voiceover, exactly what he's doing.  He provides details about spycraft, and points out how real spying differs from what you see in the movies.  For example, the pilot episode includes a car chase.  During the car chase, Michael patiently explains, in voiceover, that losing a tail is not about going fast.  Instead, you just drive like a complete idiot until the other guy screws up.

At the same time, Michael steadily works to track down who burned him.  He slowly works his way up the government hierarchy, coercing or tricking or bribing various people to give him the information he needs.  It becomes clear that whoever did this to him is scary, and powerful, and has a plan.

Fortunately, Michael has a couple of friends helping him out with his crazy spy stuff.

Fiona Glenanne is Michael's ex-girlfriend:  beautiful but dangerous.  She's ex-IRA, she thrives on chaos, and she loves to deal with problems by shooting at them with a high-powered rifle.  She and Michael have a tumultuous past and, now that they've wound up in the same city, a tumultuous future as well.  They flirt while constructing bombs, and Fiona tries to pressure him into a more serious relationship.

Sam Axe is a washed-up ex-government spy who's settling into grizzled middle age.  At the start of the series, Sam makes ends meet by boozily flirting with rich divorcées.  He helps out by creating diversions, gathering information undercover, and getting information from his buddies in the government.

Work doesn't occupy all of Michael's time.  Miami is his hometown, so moving there has put Michael back in touch with his family.  His mother, Madeline Westen, is a demanding, neurotic chain smoker who knows how to guilt Michael into doing just about anything.  His younger brother, Nate, is a compulsive gambler and small-time crook, always in some kind of trouble.

Michael's relationship with his family is strained.

His father was abusive, and when Michael worked as a spy, he mostly avoided his family.  This hints at one of the themes of Burn Notice:  that people who are the best at covertly serving their country are often the worst at just living their lives.  Michael doesn't know how to deal with his family.  He and Fiona clearly don't know how to be in a relationship.  And while Michael's perfectly effective at working undercover, when he just hangs out with people, there's something off-putting and mechanical about him.

In many ways, this show isn't just about Michael's individual cases or even about finding who burned him:  it's about a guy finally discovering family and friendship, when he once thought of those as liabilities.

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Date:Monday (2/23/09) 2:08pm
Dude, I saw my username with a strikethrough and nearly had a heart attack! Hee.

You're looking good here, I think! I wish you luck on the reducing length issue. Definitely I don't think you want to cut the last couple paragraphs too much, though - if it were longer I'd suggest you expand on them, but for this length they're about right.

Michael's relationship with his family is strained.

This line you could probably cut, unless you're going for ironic understatement. ^_^
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Date:Monday (2/23/09) 3:59pm
Thanks!  I was wondering if I was off-base with that last bit.

(I cut about a hundred words and sent it in.  It's still maybe a minute or so long, but *shrug* I doubt anyone'll care.)
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