What happens to a spy when he's no longer of use to his agency? Is he offered an early retirement package with a pension and health benefits until he qualifies for Medicare?
Not usually. He's either terminated, in the deadliest sense of the word, or he receives what's known in the trade as a "burn notice." This means he's cut off from all government contacts and support, his bank accounts are frozen, and he all but ceases to exist.
That's what happens to veteran spook Michael Westen in USA Network's new original drama series Burn Notice, which premieres at 10 p.m. tomorrow.
As luck would have it, Westen is burned at a most inopportune time - just when he's in the middle of a dangerous undercover mission with some very unpleasant men in the middle of Nigeria. After managing to escape Nigeria - barely - Westen's new mission becomes trying to figure out who issued the burn notice on him, why, and whether he can reverse it before someone decides to eliminate him permanently.
The resourceful spy is played by Jeffrey Donovan, last seen in USA's entertaining but short-lived series Touching Evil. The likeable Donovan saves what could have been a stereotypical role by infusing his character with the same laid-back brand of coolness, insouciance, and easy charm that James Garner once brought to a TV character named Jim Rockford.
Wedged into the back seat of a luxury sedan between two thugs with guns pointed at him, Westen tries to break the ice with a little light banter.
"You know, Mercedes makes an SUV now," he tells his new friends. "Big back seat it's great surprisingly affordable, too."
With no support system to rely on, Westen finds himself temporarily back in his hometown of Miami, and the dysfunctional family he'd traveled halfway around the world to get away from. Particularly trying is his mother, a nagging hypochondriac played by Sharon Gless (Cagney & Lacey, Queer as Folk), who's thrilled that her prodigal son has finally come home.
The show's exceptional supporting cast also includes Bruce Campbell, a B-movie icon best known for his appearances in the cult favorite Evil Dead trilogy of horror movies. In Burn Notice, Campbell plays a roguish friend of Westen, a washed-up military intelligence officer whose main interests now consist of drinking and picking up rich women.
Oh, and he also spies on his old friend for the FBI.
Rounding out the lead roles is Gabrielle Anwar (The Tudors), a British actress who plays Westen's former girlfriend, a sexy but tough ex-IRA operative whose idea of foreplay is head-butting a bad guy into unconsciousness.
To earn a few bucks to keep himself going, Westen puts his special ops training to work, hiring out as a troubleshooter and investigator. While in that role, he manages to clear up a multimillion-dollar art theft, take on a local drug dealer, and even offer a few hand-to-hand combat tips to a third-grader who's tired of being bullied.
All along, there's plenty of witty dialogue, along with a lighthearted narrative delivered by the lead character. In a voice over during a fight scene, Westen explains his theory of unarmed conflict:
"In a fight, you have to be careful not to break the little bones in your hand on someone's face," he says dryly. "That's why I like bathrooms - lots of hard surfaces."
And in case viewers might forget that the series takes place in Miami, there are loads of scene-setting shots of girls in bikinis running on the beach, playing volleyball, and in-line skating. (Aren't there any fat, bald guys or old ladies in Miami? Guess not.)
With most of the summer TV schedule given over to network reruns and reality shows, the cable networks are giving viewers some of their best options. With Burn Notice, the USA Network is continuing its tradition of featuring offbeat but winning leading men. From Monk to Psych, USA series have off-kilter but engaging heroes. Michael Westen, the spy left out in the cold, may be the most appealing of the lot.