"When you're a spy, it can be hard to accept that the mission is over."
That isn't a line from the "Burn Notice" series finale, which airs Thursday on USA; it sprang from my own brain. I've heard Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) do that kind of narration so often that it was hard to resist the urge to channel that deadpan voice one more time before it's time to say goodbye to the show.
There was a lot of USA Network DNA in this show from the moment it debuted: It had the blue skies that the network's shows are known for, and the Miami setting allowed for a lot of skimpy bikinis, palm trees and mojitos.
But the show's deeper arc -- which told the story of a spy who had to learn how to dismantle the mental compartments he'd so diligently built and reconnect to the people in his life while he rebuilt his professional reputation -- was what gave the show its heft and texture. You could also argue that it paved the way for "Suits," "Covert Affairs" and "Graceland," which tend to go darker and more serialized than earlier USA shows like "Psych" and "Monk."
In its seven seasons, "Burn Notice" did an admirable job of mixing dry humor and action and blending family crises with nifty spycraft. As creator Matt Nix told me in a 2008 interview, former spy Westen can do a lot of impressive things, but "he does eat food. He has a mother. He has relationship issues to deal with. You can't live exclusively in the space of, 'I am a strong fellow with martial arts training!'"
"Burn Notice" never fell into the trap of taking itself too seriously, but it always had a heart (and if you don't believe that, check out this Michael-Madeline scene from the series finale). And Nix -- who clearly enjoyed building new physical and emotional traps for Michael and his crew to escape from -- always had his eye on the bigger picture. Slowly but surely, Michael kept finding new layers of the conspiracy that had left him out in the cold. As the seasons progressed, he found his way back into the espionage community, but he was always forced to question whether the price of re-admission was too high.
"Bruce Campbell characterized the show as being, on some level, about Michael becoming a human being," Nix said in a 2011 interview.
A lot of shows give in to the temptation to coast in their final seasons, but "Burn Noticed' upped the stakes considerably in its final year (and supplied good supporting performances from Adrian Pasdar and Jack Coleman). But since the show debuted six years ago, the grit of Donovan's intensely committed performance, the fiestiness of Fiona Glennane (Gabrielle Anwar) and the laid-back loyalty of Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell) combined to create something reminiscent of a mojito: "Burn Notice" has been cool and sweet, tart and refreshing.
And it kept evolving: Incorporating Madeline Westen (the always outstanding Sharon Gless) more deeply into the core narrative only improved the show over time, and the addition of Jesse Porter (Coby Bell) added to the ways the crew could put one over on unsuspecting criminals, crooked spies and assorted lowlifes. Not every episode hit the sweet spot, but over 111 hours, the show had an admirable hit-to-miss ratio, even if viewers might be left with the impression that Michael's team, over time, blew up half of South Florida.
All the things I mentioned above are the big "Burn Notice" elements I'll miss. But in honor of the show's seven seasons, here are seven of the smaller touches I'll also remember fondly.
- The introduction. "When you're burned, you've got nothing. No cash, no credit, no job history. You're stuck in whatever city they decided to dump you in." Ten years from now, if you wake me from a deep sleep and ask me to recite Michael's initial "Burn Notice" voiceover, I bet I could do it.
- The antagonists/frenemies. The Season 2 arc that featured Michael Shanks as Victor is probably the show's high-water mark; as Donovan once said, "Victor is what Michael would be if Michael had rabies." The well-acted storyline was unexpectedly resonant, but it was far from the only terrific performances from guest stars in recurring roles. My favorite guest stars include Jay Karnes as Tyler Brennen, Garret Dillahunt as Simon Escher, Tim Matheson as Larry Sizemore, John C. McGinley as Tom Card and Jere Burns as Anson Fullerton, all of whom proved to be memorable foils for Michael. And I can't leave out Barry the money launderer (Paul Tei), Carmelo the drug sleaze (Todd Stashwick) and Silas Weir Mitchell as the loony lowlife Seymour.
- The chyrons. Early in every episode, a few words of text slam on to the screen, and that chyron usually the identified a character as "the client" or whoever Michael was targeting that week. As time went by, "Burn Notice" had more and more fun with the chyrons, and they often provided a little giggle as the action of the episode kicked into a higher gear.
- The yogurt. Michael ate a lot of yogurt, to the point that it became a running joke among the fans. Hey, staying healthy -- especially for a spy on the go -- is no joke!
- The beer. If there's one thing we knew about Sam Axe, it's that he always had (or always wanted to have) a beer in his hand. The other thing we knew about Sam Axe, aside from his magical way with the ladies, is that he always had a key buddy in the right law enforcement organization who could supply the gang with some piece of key information they needed.
- Chuck Finley. This was Sam's go-to fake identity, and Chuck's appearances were always amusing.
- The voiceovers. One of the things I'll miss most is the narration, which (amazingly enough) was never used for lazy exposition or clunky character development. Westen's voiceovers did obliquely comment on whatever was happening on screen, but the dry narration mostly supplied handy information about fighting, spying and tips on how not to get broken in half by bad guys. After seven seasons, though, I must admit that I'm still not really sure how to make an incendiary device out of tape, gum and a tin can. My bad: Michael certainly explained it enough times.
The "Burn Notice" series finale airs 9 p.m. ET Thursday on USA.
The two-and-a-half-hour movie that closed out the series, "Goodbye, Farewell, And Amen," held the record for the most-watched broadcast in American history for almost two decades. That's not to say it didn't generate controversy: The Korean War ends and all the characters bid farewell to return to their "normal" lives, but some (like poor Hawkeye, as seen in the video here) don't end up quite as viewers hoped. The iconic ending is as big a tear-jerker as you'll ever see on TV.
One of the most spoofed and widely referenced finales of all time, the "St. Elsewhere" finale ended with the revelation that St. Eligius hospital and its staff (which included Denzel Washington, Helen Hunt, Howie Mandel and Mark Harmon) were all the creations of an autistic child, Tommy Westphall, taking place inside a snowglobe. Fans weren't too thrilled about investing six years of their lives in characters who never existed in the first place, which is kind of ironic when you think about it.
45 years later, we're not sure if anyone has figured out what this televisual acid trip actually meant or whether any of it even happened. Did Number 6 truly leave The Village? Was he really Number 1 the whole time? And why the monkey mask? If you were frustrated by the ambiguities of the "Lost" finale, this cult British classic might send you off the deep end.
Walnut Grove blows up. Yep, it BLOWS UP. In order to stave off a greedy baron and save Walnut Grove from a takeover, everyone collectively decides to eradicate the town to make sure it doesn't fall into the wrong hands. Faulty logic, but effective! Fittingly, all that's left standing is the Little House.
Another infamous finale -- though undeniably inventive at the time -- saw main character Dick Loudon get hit in the head by a golf ball in the final minutes of the episode, only to wake up as Dr. Bob Hartley (the main character from "The Bob Newhart Show," which ended in 1978). This revealed that the whole of "Newhart" had taken place as a dream inside the mind of one of Bob Newhart's previous characters. Trippy!
To be fair, the powers-that-be behind "ALF" didn't realize this would be the final episode, but it's still no excuse for going out like this: In a nutshell, ALF is taken into custody by the authorities rather than escaping back to his home planet of Melmac. A sad, jarring ending to a family-oriented sitcom.
We all know the question "Who shot J.R.?," but fans of the show were left with that ultimate cliffhanger when the series came to an end (the first time). Did he kill himself? Was it Adam? (Luckily for fans -- or unluckily -- at the end of the current Season 2 "Dallas" finale, we found out who shot J.R. for real.)
Full of mysteries and subtle imagery, "Twin Peaks" wasn't the easiest show to get a grasp on. The finale was essentially a series of cliffhangers, leaving devoted fans in the lurch forever. There's a bank explosion, Agent Cooper is trapped in a lodge while his "doppelganger" (possessed by an evil spirit) runs free, and we get a promise of something happening in "25 years."
The third-most watched series finale of all time behind "M*A*S*H" and "Cheers," "Seinfeld's" finale clocked in at an hour and 15 minutes and saw the central foursome on trial for "criminal indifference" (i.e. doing nothing, much like the central premise of the show). The final minutes saw Jerry, Kramer, Elaine and George sentenced to a year in jail, closing with Jerry doing a poorly received stand-up routine in prison. Although the finale was seen by more than 76 million households, many fans felt that it mocked the audience and portrayed the characters as callous with no respect for society -- but that was part of their charm, right?
Ever the hero, Xena sacrificed herself to ensure that 40,000 damned souls could find peace, which meant that -- unlike earlier seasons that saw our heroine cheat Hades numerous times -- she had to stay dead, leaving her ass-kicking mission to BFF/soulmate Gabrielle while she hung out as a ghostly sidekick. While it was sweet that even death couldn't separate the pair, it was still a fairly depressing climax for a show that, until that point, had unashamedly celebrated female empowerment. Didn't they deserve a happy ending?!
If you grew up with this series, you'll probably recall the angst surrounding Joey's choice: Would she pick lifelong friend and crush Dawson, or the sweet-yet-devilish Pacey? Her ultimate pick (Pacey) left half the viewers elated and the remainder peeved. Think of it as the original Team Edward vs. Team Jacob.
Die-hard "BSG" fans were waiting eagerly (after many hiatuses) for a cumulative finale that answered all their questions: Is there one God or multiple Gods, or maybe not at all? Who/what is Kara Thrace? Are there any more Cylons? Is this planet Earth? Unfortunately, the writers painted themselves into a corner, and we were left with a bunch of barely-there explanations.
Which is worse -- finding out that the entire show was a dream, or never knowing what happened to your favorite characters at all? "The Sopranos" kept things deliciously ambiguous, building up the tension as viewers wondered whether some shady character was about to shoot up the diner in the show's final moments, but instead, the finale cut abruptly to black, leaving the fate of the titular family uncertain.
The great debate about what it all means still rages on even three years later, but after six seasons of ever-deepening mysteries, there was no way that everyone was going to be satisfied by "Lost's" eventual ending. Whatever your feelings are about the show's grand ruminations on the nature of life, death and redemption, your level of finale satisfaction probably depends on whether you were moved by the uplifting/sappy ending of our island-dwellers disappearing into the bright white light of the afterlife together, or left frustrated by the show's unanswered mythological questions. The battle continues!
The "Smallville" finale featured plenty of satisfying moments for longtime Superman fans -- from Perry White exclaiming "Great Caesar's ghost!" to an Olsen in a newsboy cap and the legendary John Williams theme -- but audiences had been waiting 10 years to see Clark Kent don the iconic cape and red underoos and embrace his destiny. What they got was a tiny, CGI speck that looked vaguely like Tom Welling and one shirt-ripping final moment, leaving many viewers feeling understandably short-changed.
LONELY BOY IS GOSSIP GIRL? In some ways, it made total sense (Dan was always way too obsessed with the scandalous lives of Manhattan's elite). On the other hand, it was so obvious that the big reveal hadn't been planned from the very beginning and it seemed to assume all of its viewers were idiots. The show found it disturbingly easy to handwave away all of Dan's betrayals just to give him a happy ending with Serena. Ick. (We were rooting for Dorota!)
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