How My 'Burn Notice' Podcast Made Me a Better TV Writer
We started "Burn, Noticed," a weekly rewatch podcast for the late 00’s USA television show "Burn Notice," as a joke. I tweeted the title of what is now a two-year-old show spanning 73 episodes because the concept of a podcast about "Burn Notice" was funny enough to me, let alone a "Burn Notice" recap podcast called Burn, Noticed.
Then, as I so often do, I bullied my dear friend Christine Cherry into doing it with me, and despite all odds it has become one of the most creatively fulfilling projects I’ve been a part of since we started it back in July, 2019. Not only that, but exhaustively recapping and analyzing this Miami-based spy procedural has actually made me a more thoughtful TV writer.
It’s all in the details.
We rate every episode of "Burn Notice" as either a) an episode of television, b) a great episode of television, or c) a great episode of "Burn Notice"—C is not mutually exclusive to A or B, and has its own set of rules (the spy voiceover needs to have a least five distinct, practical tips for even laypeople like Chris and I, Michael Westen needs to unveil a new alias, etc. etc.), but the difference between A and B is more subtle. Usually, what keeps an episode of television from being great is how detailed both the individual scenes and the overall plot threads are.
When I say, “It’s all in the details,” what I mean is that there should be no throwaway beats or moments; if Michael Westen is pretending to be a criminal to ingratiate himself with a crime boss he’s trying to take down, he can either be a generic, unnamed loan shark who yells a lot or he can be Trey, a loan shark who uses a lot of idioms but just a little bit wrong. “It’s like getting juice from a stone” is one of my favorites.
Are the incorrect idioms important to the overall plot/case of the week? Not at all. But they elevate every scene they’re in, turning what would otherwise be perfunctory exposition dumps into a memorable exchange between two characters with distinct points of view. It’s not new to write an episode of a procedural about a fishy loan shark (pun intended), so what sets it apart is all in … the details.
The weirder/more specific, the more memorable, and as a writer currently seeking representation and paid opportunities, the more memorable my scripts can be even when exposition-dumping, the better.
Great individual scenes don’t make a great episode, though, so the other factor of detail-work I’ve learned from "Burn Notice" is that the internal logic of every scene and running gag needs to hold up to scrutiny. Instead of Fiona suddenly getting angry at Michael for making her reconnect with an old flame for a case, despite her being the one to suggest the reconnection in the first place, a great episode of "Burn Notice" will either rewrite the scene at the beginning to show Michael actively manipulating her into reconnecting with this old flame, despite noting her discomfort, or attach her resentment needed for a future episode to something other than a random character we’ve never seen/heard of before nor will ever see again.
The sloppy version isn’t badly written, but it lacks an attention to detail that would have taken it to a whole new level and give audiences a more nuanced understanding of the tension between two characters who otherwise seem like they’re in a really healthy place.
Every scene needs to matter.
Something else I’ve started to notice is that the "Burn Notice" episodes I love make each scene matter, even the most expository or transitional. As a case-of-the-week procedural, every episode has to have a “client” who either actively or accidentally hires Michael to solve a problem for them, and thus at least 2-3 times per episode Michael or someone else in his vigilante spy gang will need to check in with them.
Usually, these scenes last about 30 seconds and serve to either ramp up tension, as the client gets more terrified of what will happen if Michael can’t solve the problem, or exchange a bit of exposition so the gang has a new angle to try to solve said problem. They’re almost always boring but ultimately necessary for the flow of the weekly case.
A lot of conventional writing advice focuses on killing your darlings, elements that are great and well-written but ultimately unnecessary for the storytelling. What "Burn Notice" has taught me, however, is the importance of elevating your necessary evils beyond their base structural purpose in the script. A necessary scene should never feel like it’s there simply to be necessary, and if it does, perhaps a C plot or a running gag should be introduced that helps ground that scene in the episode’s world building and allow it to deepen the connections (or miscommunications) between our ensemble.
My "Burn, Noticed" co-host Chris would be the first to tell you that I’m not generally great with theme. Like many of the "Burn Notice" writers, it would seem, my inspiration for a script usually stems from “this seems like an interesting conflict, I wonder how the characters will react to it.”
That’s all well and good, but even the most basic plots need to be about something, if only to have a cohesive arc that can be satisfying solo, as is the job of any given mid-season episode of a procedural.
When you’re working in genre storytelling, be it sci-fi/fantasy or crime-fighting, theme can start to feel like an abstract, artsy-fartsy concept that’s ultimately unnecessary because the whole point of this script is “hero kicks butt.” What turns an episode of television into a great one, however, is often not about the plot. Any writer can outline a cohesive plot. But great writers make sure that all the disparate elements of their episode, from the case of the week to the character growth to the check in on the season-long arc, are thematically aligned.
When you aren’t recapping an episode it can be easy to passively enjoy it, but since I started having to take detailed notes on how episodes unfold I’ve started noticing that the reason I like certain episodes more than others is that things don’t just happen for the sake of things happening.
For instance, an average episode will have Michael helping a young person fight back against their father figure and will perhaps feature a throwaway line about how Michael himself was abused by his father (this is the plot to like every other "Burn Notice" episode, for the record). A great episode will integrate a macro-season check-in B plot about feeling powerless to an unreasonable authority figure and a character-driven C-plot featuring Michael’s mother, with whom he’s always had a strained relationship due to their both being abused. Then, instead of an episode where Michael’s backstory of abuse is referenced as a fact, it becomes an episode about power and control and healing.
The actual structure of the case of the week doesn’t need to change, and the C-plot doesn’t have to have an after-school-special tone. But all the arcs within the episode need to feel like they’re a part of the same episode on a deeper level than “well, we needed this episode to remind audiences about this detail because it’ll be important next episode.”
Antagonists need to have a character, not just a literal presence.
Being a crime procedural, "Burn Notice" introduces its fair share of antagonists. At least one per episode, being a procedural, if not more. And how much I care about any given antagonist, especially the season-long ones that we spend multiple episodes contending with, has a lot to do with how they’re introduced.
Take Carla, the season 2 “big bad” played by the always-excellent Trisha Helfer. That character was introduced as a hot lady at a bar before being revealed as one of the people who got Michael burned from the CIA. The first full episode she was featured in has her sending Michael on a side mission to the episode’s main case of the week to get a key card from a particular counterfeiter, which sets the tone for the rest of his interactions with her. Her defining features are “hot” and “mysterious,” and we never learn anything more about her, her motivations, or the various wild-goose chases she sends Michael on because of a totally separate character derailing them before the finished puzzle can be revealed.
By contrast, take Gilroy, the sociopathic sniper from season 3. While his untimely end is ultimately a let down, his arc was far more compelling. Gilroy assassinates a person important to Michael, then as Michael tries to track him down he nearly murders Michael on multiple occasions, all before finally introducing himself and bringing Michael in on something he’s working on which, importantly, we do find out about eventually.
The difference between these two antagonists was not the writing—most of the staff ended up working on one episode or another about each. It was in the introduction. Carla was introduced without any real fanfare, and in an attempt to make her mysterious, they just continually failed to tell us anything about her, making it hard to care when she appeared. We didn’t even know Gilroy’s name for the first episode or two that his character technically appeared in, we just knew him as [spoiler alert]’s killer and attempted murderer of our favorite beige-suited protagonist, and through Michael’s early investigation of him we learned a bit more about his background, his motivations, and most importantly, his personality.
As a writer of mysteries and crime dramas myself, I now understand that I can’t just have a villain show up acting villainous, I need them to make an active impact on the ongoing storyline and characters before the tension feels real. Plus, a character can be mysterious without being a complete tabula rasa.
"Burn, Noticed," Noticed
Will occasionally being less than exuberant about the television show "Burn Notice" potentially negatively impact my future TV writing career? Totally. We already had our favorite "Burn Notice" staff writer decline to be on our show because our pilot episode was a little rough on the showrunner, Matt Nix, a close personal friend of his. However, I stand by our critiques and our less-than-gentle ribbing, especially because exploring every possible angle of this show has helped me grow as a writer, in my own right, substantially.
*Feature Photo: Gabrielle Anwar and Jeffrey Donovan of "Burn Notice" / USA Network