In “Burn Notice,” USA delivers a pleasant surprise, if only because so little about the concept indicates how much fun the 90-minute premiere is. Recognizing the star quality in Jeffrey Donovan (last showcased in the channel’s short-lived 2004 drama “Touching Evil”), he returns as a spy who, for unexplained reasons, suddenly can’t come in from the cold and must survive on his wits. Graced with a sly voiceover and strong supporting characters, it’s the kind of breezy romp that dovetails nicely with the cabler’s most popular fare and which manages to look more effortless than it surely is.
Donovan is Michael Westen, a resourceful spy inexplicably given a “burn notice” by his handlers that essentially severs any ties to him. As a consequence, he’s stranded in Miami without a clue as to why he’s been cut loose. In desperation, he occupies a vacant loft, turning for help to an old girlfriend (Gabrielle Anwar) who has former ties to the Irish Republican Army, and a semi-retired intelligence officer pal (Bruce Campbell) whose favorite pastimes are drinking and ogling women.
Westen is even forced to interact with his nagging mom (Sharon Gless), and take a private eye-type gigwhile seeking to unravel his fall from grace.
What really sparks “Burn Notice” is Donovan’s Rockford-like mix of comedy, action and roguish charm, augmented by a dry narration through which he delivers a kind of “how-to” guide to spying — explaining his preference for fighting in bathrooms, for example, because they have “lots of hard surfaces” into which one can slam an opponent; it’s easier on the knuckles.
Donovan plays Westen with an arched eyebrow, but series creator Matt Nix adds several humanizing touches, from the spy teaching a bullied kid how to defend himself to lamenting how his well-honed combat skills haven’t equipped him to handle mom. (Bruce Willis was a producer on “Touching Evil,” and Donovan exhibits a similar flair for tossing off one-liners in between dispatching bad guys.)
The opener kicks off with a strong introductory sequence set in Nigeria, in which Westen discovers at the worst possible moment that his support system has abruptly evaporated. After that, it’s fun in the sun, prompting the fallen spook to compare his initial Miami digs to a “Girls Gone Wild” video.
USA has labored to replicate the wry rewards of “Monk” in fulfilling its “Characters welcome” campaign, and if the network can market a series graced with an understated premise and mediocre title, “Burn Notice” comes closer than most of its recent offerings to achieving that whimsical tone, featuring a leading man who lives up to the slogan — one with charisma to burn.