Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Appointment Television - Chuck and Burn Notice

I'm a little behind the ball on the return of Burn Notice to the schedule this January. Really, it's just the remaining episodes from the summer rotation split, a la BSG, into two sections to stretch throughout the calendar year. But I have no complaints when such scheduling shenanigans result in more hot spy stuff.

Burn Notice chronicles the continuing quest for defrocked spy Michael Weston (Jeffrey Donovan) to uncover who "burned" him, i.e. fired with extreme prejudice, effectively re-writing his life in a single instant. Now he's stuck in his hometown of Miami where he performs A-team like rescues for underdogs with no one else to turn to. Fortunately, he does so in a classic Dodge Charger and not a souped up black and red van. And his team has more spunk with ex-girlfriend and former IRA terrorist Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and ex-CIA best friend Sam (the delectable Bruce Campbell) lending their expertise while bickering through every job. There's also his mom, Madeline (Sharon Glesss), who smokes incessantly, drags Michael to therapy (a spy in therapy - think of it), calls him from a spy set up to change a light bulb, ropes him into "helping out a friend",
and regularly provides a safe house for whomever Michael is protecting at the moment.

In the first season, either Sam or Madeline would bring a potential client to Michael who were either friends or old buddies in need. Michael would reluctantly get involved, mostly because he needed to earn a living while uncovering who was trying to erase/control him. But now in the second season, Michael rarely even quibbles and in fact is ready to help from the start. This evolution of character is part of what makes it such a good show and what makes Jeffrey Donovan so good of an actor that the audience believe both the recalcitrant Michael and the accommodating Michael as the same man without him loosing any points off his suave bad ass edge.

As Michael is weekly swept up into a new A-plot, he explains various spy techniques for rigging home made bombs, or defrauding bad guys, or blowing up his own car to escape an assassin, usually accomplished with whatever materials are around him or that can be found in a local hardware store. (The producers insist that they always keep back a crucial ingredient so that no one could actually make an explosive from what they see on the show. That's what the Internet is for, right?)

It's like Macgyver on speed. With guns. And cool explosions. And fabulous snarky dialogue. And an intriguing mythology.

Did I mention Bruce Campbell?

For a good, fun, exciting, intriguing, entertaining ride, t
une into Burn Notice.

In the same spy category but world's away from Michael Weston's smooth successes is Chuck. Another keeper for me, this show is finally finding its solid legs in the middle of its second season. I've been hooked from the start, but can see the show's rhythm finally becoming consistent and reliable as it heads towards the final season two stretch. Cut short by last year's writers strike, the show elected not to come back on the schedule until fall 2008, setting itself up for a reboot.

Here's the gist: Once an up-and-coming computer whiz kid at Stamford, Chuck was set up for cheating by his roommate and was summarily expelled. He now works with his childhood friend Morgan (Joshua Gomez) at the Buy More (a Best Buy-like electronics store) as part of the Nerd Herd (read Geek Squad) and shares an apartment with his sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster, lately of the beloved Everwood) and her fiancee, the aptly named Captain Awesome (Ryan McPartlin who did such an incredible job as an a-hole on Mad Men that I didn't even realize it was the same guy). Alls boring day in and day out for Chuck until that same former roommate - now a CIA spy - sends a classified database called The Intersect that's full of - well - spy stuff - to Chuck via an e-mail that downloads the information directly into Chuck's brain.

Stay with me.

Now Chuck lives his days at the Buy More amongst his fellow geeks and his nights (and lunch hours) fumbling around the spy world hither and thither with his subconsciously accessed database to quell the Big Bad every week. He has two handlers - Casey, (the fantabulous Adam Baldwin [no relation]) representing the military and CIA spy Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) - who
do most of the heavy spy lifting and are meant to protect Chuck and The Intersect - and rarely in that order. Casey stays close by as a neighbor and co-worker, Sarah poses incongruously as Chuck's girlfriend - a true pairing of Beauty and the Geek. Chuck himself doesn't really belong in either world and when not indulging his inner 007 or running for his life, he's trying to figure out just where he does fit - and with who.

What makes this show great? Oh, how about everything. Let's start with the Short Skirt and Long Jacket theme song by Cake, to which I do the great spy dance every week. Then there's Adam Baldwin's pitch perfect deadpan deliveries, the totally awesome 80s homages that pop up in every episode if you know to look for them,
Yvonne Strahovski kicking butt in nearly every episode (she's no Sidney Bristow, but that's not really a mark against her). Or is it the clear Die Hard hero worship that creators/producers/writers Josh Swartz and Chris Fedak float through every episode, the sometimes disgusting but always hysterical antics of the Buy More minions, or the multiple ways Chuck has saved the day either with some last-minute geektastic knowledge or just by finally being himself. Which is really how we like him best.

If you have fond memories of Gotcha then Chuck is the show for you. Go ahead.

Indulge your inner spy.

Burn Notice fires up
Thursday nights at 10pm on the USA channel.
Get out of the car with Chuck on NBC (channel 4 ET) Monday nights at 8pm.

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