If you’re doing an arced series, you pretty much have to write a premise pilot script.
Burn Notice, written by series creator Matt Nix, was indeed a premise pilot, setting up the mystery story that the series will unravel over its season; why covert operative Michael Weston got served with the eponymous burn notice and his life as a spy terminated.
The series seems to be doing a Veronica Mars thing. Each week the show will dole out a few tantalizing tidbits about Weston’s termination and maybe even end (as it does in the pilot) with a juicy cliffhanger relate to this long story. But in addition there will be a complete (and hopefully satisfying) plot delivered from beginning to end in the episode.
The show, if you haven’t seen it, is a kind of MacGyver-Magnum PI cross with a little Fugitive thrown in. A wise cracking ex-spy with a roll of duct tape and heart of gold helps the underdog all the while trying to figure out why he got burned. There’s a fair amount of action but played for comedy. And there is a lot of voice-over narration as Michael gives us the play-by-play on his life which I realized as I watched helps us to understand how all the cool MacGyverisms work.
It’s really interesting to look at how the pilot sets up the premise and at the same time delivers the episodic plot.
The first thing to note is that the episode ran just over 65 minutes without any commercials. A seven minute plus tease ran in advance of the series titles, followed by what appeared to be four acts (hard to tell without those commercial markers). The act breaks seem to fall at the 24, 32 and 45 minute marks, with the final 22 minutes playing out without interruption.
The act curtains were soft compared to some, possibly because Nix knew he wouldn’t have commercial breaks he had to hold onto his audience through. Or maybe it’s just that they’re comedy act breaks, not designed to build the jeopardy and tension.
The first curtain, at the end of the teaser, comes as our hero, Michael Weston, escapes danger in Nigeria and passes out on a plane. The second is Weston screaming into a pillow after having to face his mother. This is a character beat — big tough double black belt can face anything except mom. — rather than a moment of tension in the story. Act Three ends at the end of a day, a date has ended not too well and a villain dispatched rather effectively and it’s time for bed. Act Four begins the next morning (I think this is the act break, I can’t swear to it). The final curtain at the episode’s end is the first cliffhanger, a suggestion that something weird and possibly sinister is at play in the long story and that strong invitation to come back next week to find out what.
Let’s look now, at how the various subplots lay out.
To my reckoning there were five story threads. The A is the longer story: the mystery of why Michael got burned combined with the more functional tale of how he’s dealing it with it. The B-story is the mystery of the week, involving Javier, a rich guy’s servant who’s being framed for robbing the rich guy. The C involves Michael’s new apartment and the pain-in-the-ass drug dealer living downstairs. Then there’s a runner about Michael’s mother which I’m calling the M-story. And finally, there’s a heartwarming mini-story about Javier’s son; the K-story.
The teaser is all A story. We meet Michael the spy at work in Nigeria. In the middle of a dicey situation, he gets word that there’s a burn notice out on him. He’s surrounded by enemies with big guns and suddenly no one’s backing him up. With wits, a little violence and a cool car chase that ends in a comedic twist, he escapes. But not without a few broken ribs and possibly a concussion. He passes out on a plane.
The first half of Act One sticks with the A, updating us on what’s happened since he left Nigeria and showing us Michael dealing with the implications of being burned which involves some jeopardy — for example he has no money anymore, the FBI are following him and his mother knows he’s in Miami. The seven A-story beats that open Act One also introduce us to a couple of characters who will be his sidekicks, ex-girlfriend Fiona and ex-spy, current lush Sam.
And then we come to the B-story, which is developed in four quick beats which introduce us to the three main players: Javier, his rich boss and the boss’s security guy.
Next comes a single beat of the C-story in which Michael moves into his new apartment over a disco and his landlord tells him about the bad ass drug dealer living downstairs. The scene also includes some information about Michael’s career as a spy in which we learn how capable and amazing he was at his job, to make the comedic contrast with the next scene.
And to end the act, the first M beat, the phone call from mom (we can hear her voice) which drives big Mr. Tough-guy spy to scream into a pillow.
Act Two opens with a scene that combines another M-beat with an A-story beat. I think it’s one of the funniest and cleverest scenes in the episode. Michael is driving his nagging mother to a doctor’s appointment as he tries to shake his FBI tail.
This is followed by another quick A-story beat, a C-story beat and one more A beat. Then a cluster of 3 Bs, plus the introduction of the K-runner and finally, a C-beat to round off the act.
So the second act, keeps all the story lines in play, but like the first act, clusters the B beats close together, moving us through that story quickly and efficiently.
Act Three begins with an A beat, a little C-moment and then a cluster of three B beats, a K, then three more B beats. Then comes a scene in which Michael goes to dinner with his ex Fiona, which gives us some character and back story, reminds us of the A story and updates B a bit. The act ends with the C-story once again.
The final and very long fourth act opens with the B story and then settles into the C for a couple of beats and big MacGyver move that wraps up the C-story. Then it’s time to get back to the B for two beats, make a quick visit to mom and then an action and MacGyver sequence of three beats that are there more for their thrills and coolness than because they drive the B or K stories forward. Then come two K beats in which the spy teaches the kid to overcome bullies.
Next we go to the A story for a couple of beats and then three more beats of action and MacGyverisms to bring the B story to a conclusion.
Finally, a scene that acts like a tag in the way it adds that extra ending to the B- and K-stories. And the final A story beat that leaves us hanging from the cliff waiting for next week.
Throughout the episode, we see clusters of scenes that drive particular stories forward. Only the C really drops in in single installments and that too needs a concentrated section at the top of the fourth act to get real momentum.
Sometimes, we think we need to start all the plot lines near the beginning of a show and then interweave them throughout, going back and forth with regularity. The more shows I break down, the more I see how wrong that is. Stories seem to play out nicely when you devote a few consecutive scenes to them, even most of an act. And you can leave another story thread hanging for quite a while.
Burn Notice didn’t have a lot of jeopardy, sexual tension nor did it have high stakes curtains, but it was an engaging hour that kept you watching with humour, story, action and some great duct tape sequences. I’ll watch it again, not because I’m dying to know why he was burned, but because it’s fun to watch.