"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.