"Burn Notice" is a light-hearted action drama of little consequence -- and proud of it. The new USA series is entertaining, stylish, and, most of all, slight. It's a 1980s-style detective show in the manner of "MacGyver" that has been contemporized with an ironic hero, his mock-tough narration, and his invasive, neurotic mother. In a nod to 1980s TV cops, Sharon Gless of "Cagney & Lacey" has been perfectly cast as that manipulative bummer of a mum.
The Miami-set show, which premieres tonight at 10, doesn't bother giving its criminals-of-the-week much personality -- something the contemporary likes of "CSI" or "Without a Trace" do to effect realism. These bad guys are central-casting generic. "Burn Notice," created by TV newcomer Matt Nix, is really all about its colorful regulars, most notably lead actor Jeffrey Donovan, his fashionable jackets, and his impossibly white teeth.
Donovan, who has done stints on "The Pretender," "Crossing Jordan," and "Touching Evil" and starred in "Hamlet" on Boston Common in 2005, carries the show with a sure balance between comedy and drama. As charismatic spy Michael Westen, Donovan is GQ-model handsome, but he also clearly lets us know he's a smirking human being behind his pout. During the freeze-frame voice-overs that pepper the show, he wryly delivers quaint homespun wisdom: "Guns make you stupid . . . Duct tape makes you smart," for example. He's not cuddly and harmless like the other USA crime-solvers, Monk and Shawn of "Psych," but he's definitely not a steely James Bond either.
Westen is a U S spy who has been mysteriously fired from his job and blacklisted -- he has been "burned," in spy lingo. Suddenly without money or resources, he has returned to his hometown, Miami, to take small-time P.I. jobs and figure out why he got burned. He reconnects with his fierce ex-girlfriend, Fiona, who is played by Gabrielle Anwar like Lara Flynn Boyle with a raging Irish accent. A former IRA member, she's oddly memorable, as is B-movie icon Bruce Campbell as Michael's retired, mojito-loving spy pal. A tense trio, the three of them solve cases together.
So cool under pressure, Michael has no defense against his mother, Madeline, who never stops talking about her obsessions and psychosomatic physical symptoms. Gless was winning as the all-giving mother on "Queer as Folk," and here she has as much fun working Madeline's passive insults. Michael knows that he's powerless over her, and that she has defined his life: "People with happy families don't become spies," he tells us. "A bad childhood is the perfect background for covert ops. You don't trust anyone. You're used to getting smacked around. And you never get homesick."
The many poolside and street scenes in "Burn Notice" are shown in saturated colors. The beating sun is making everything bleed and pop. But while you feel the heat of the show, you never forget that it's all just a tangy distraction, a summer cocktail.