USA's "Burn Notice," which opened season three with series-high ratings, is exploring life for former intelligence agent Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) now that he's free of those who burned him. True to form though, Michael's life continues to be complicated whether it's a result of the cases he takes on, former foes he encounters or his erratic personal life. Our Jim Halterman talked to series creator Matt Nix about the current season, the romantic entanglements of its characters and its recurring rogue's gallery.
Jim Halterman: Did shows like "Magnum PI" or "MacGyver" influence you when you were creating "Burn Notice?"
Matt Nix: It's funny you say that. I have nothing against "MacGyver" and obviously I know why they say "MacGyver" but I was never a "MacGyver" watcher. I think I saw it but it wasn't a big thing in my life. It's funny, my great aunt, almost for Tom Selleck's entire career � she retired recently - she was his publicist. I've never met him but, oddly enough, I've met Selleck's parents. I've never laid eyes on the man but I grew up initially knowing about my aunt's friend, Tom, and then realizing that that was Tom Selleck who had a television show. Part of it was just that the voiceovers were a big part of the conception of the show and it's a voiceover of a different kind. Magnum would talk about his feelings about things or attitudes about things and Michael Westen is usually talking about technique but the tone of the voiceovers is absolutely influenced.
JH: Before the show, did you know about 'burn notices' or did you stumble about it in researching the show?
MN: I stumbled upon it in research kind of before I pitched the pilot so it was something that I happened to cross. I was interested in doing a show that showcased spy skills outside of a spy context. I was more interested in spies as people and those abilities and habit of mind and a way of looking at the world than doing an actual espionage show where we run around the world and break into the Embassy of Guam. When I stumbled across the 'burn notice' phenomenon, it was kind of in the news at the time because various people got burn notices around the Iraq war. A real burn notice can take any number of forms. Essentially, it's just a 'don't work with this guy' notice but the impact that that has on you varies based on who you were in the intelligence community. So if your identity and bank accounts and everything depend on you being a spy then you're totally screwed.
JH: We know Michael really cares for his family even though they bug the hell out of him but how did that become such an important part of the show?
MN: For me, what's interesting is a lot of the inspiration for the show originally came from talking to a guy named Michael Wilson, who is a consulting producer on the show and worked in intelligence. We never talked about his work particularly because a lot of things he had done we couldn't talk about so we'd talk about his life and his family. So, in seeing life and work and family through the eyes of someone who had lived in that world is really interesting to me. I want the show to continue being about the people and not about the gags or the action or that kind of thing. I just feel like those relationships are what anchor the show in a human drama as opposed to just the sort of spy/criminal procedural.
JH: Going into the current season, how are we going to see Michael and Fiona's relationship progress?
MN: What they're dealing with for the season is that Michael now is just essentially a guy in Miami. Fiona's attitude is great, you're a guy in Miami, let's live our lives, let's not worry about all this stuff that has been getting in the way of us being together but Michael is like 'This is the opportunity I've been wanting to get back in.' This season their relationship gets really rocky and it's really fun. They do some stuff later in the season where, suffice it to say, when Fiona and Michael's relationship gets rocky it manifests itself in interesting ways.
JH: Sam (Bruce Campbell) is such a fun character. Am I on the right track in thinking that Sam is who Michael could become in the next 20 years?
MN: Interesting. When I think about Sam... I was hugely influenced by the original "Star Trek" and when you think about the kind of dynamic between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock and Bones, that was a much more extreme version but it's more like Sam is a side of Michael. Sam was the military intelligence guy. He was the guy who says 'Let's do things the official way. Let's follow the rules more.' He spent time in official organizations. Fiona is the person who has spent no time in official organizations and never wants to do anything by any kind of rules and Michael, as a spy, splits the difference. He was working on behalf of people like Sam with people like Fiona so there's a dynamic there where Fiona is saying "Let's go in and shoot everybody" and Sam is saying "Let's call the FBI" and Michael is saying "Let's go in and fire our guns until the FBI comes." I'm oversimplifying there but what you get is that Michael has the romantic dynamic with Fiona, the best friend dynamic with Sam but he also has a professional relationship and attitude about both of them and he does split the difference between the two of them.
JH: Would there ever something romantic happen between Sam and Michael's mother, Madeline (Sharon Gless)? It crossed my mind when Sam moved in with her.
MN: Obviously it's come up a million times. People talk about it. But once your best friend dates your Mom that's all you can talk about but that said one of the fun relationships to mine is that relationship between Sam and Madeline, which is kind of a funny relationship. There's not a huge road map for "I'm friends with my best friend's mom." To give you a sense of that in a future episode that would air in winter we have a runner where Sam is paying attention to a guy that Madeline is dating just to make sure that he's good enough for her so there he's taking a bit of a fatherly interest in what's going on with her. It's a fun and sort of complicated relationship but not a romantic one.
JH: One of the things you've set up for the show is how you can bring in past foes of Michael's as well as new bad guys. How did that fall into the show's design?
MN: One silly reason for it is just that we're in Miami. Also, there's a certain amount of coming back to this local actor who we like and we don't want to bring him back in a wig so we can bring him back as his character. The other this is that one of the things that we're always thinking about is that Michael doesn't have a shingle. He doesn't have a "Michael Westen, P.I." card he hands out. So a question we're always asking ourselves is 'Where is this client coming from?' It's a little bit easier now that he's done things for a lot of people so if you hear about your friend who is in some desperate situation and you were helped by Michael Westen awhile back then you know where he is and you can refer him. We've also expanded the world that Fiona and Sam live in so Fiona is doing her bounty hunting stuff so there are some referrals there. It's also just fun... like Jason Bly (Alex Carter) from the first season. We were finished with him and he was gone. Then, the episode he was in during the second season, he wasn't in the first pass of that. We realized, 'Wait a second, what if we could get Michael in there with the guy he hates?" and having set up this great dynamic and having great chemistry between these two actors suddenly it became this really fun idea. Then, last year, in the 15th episode, we had the character of Brennen, played by Jay Karnes, and it's so much fun to write for Brennen because it's simply 'What's the most obnoxious thing he could say in every line?" so everyone loves writing for Brennen so he was back for three episodes. It was just because he's so much fun to do.
JH: "Burn Notice" plays all over the world. Do you hear from any of those countries and how they respond to the show?
MN: A little bit. It sort of depends on how long we've been there. Australia has had us for a while and we've heard nice things from there and Canada but now we're moving into Latin America. I'm always intensely curious because so much of the dialogue is sarcastic or backwards or using one word to refer to something else so I'm curious about how that comes across in Spanish. We sort of have an advantage in some ways in going to other countries because we have very identifiable good guys and bad guys. I'm proud of what we do and I don't feel like... a lot of times we're doing things that are fairly complex or intricate or delicate like the second episode of this season with the reverse interrogation. That's a pretty subtle technique and certainly not just hitting someone over the head with a baseball bat until they tell you what you want to know. That said, I'm proud of all the stuff that we do and I think it is part of the success of the show that we're not just running around hitting people but at the same time the fact that cars blow up doesn't hurt when you're exporting the show to other countries.
JH: Anything else going on besides the show?
MN: I've got another pilot that they're interested in doing. It was actually something I wrote quite a while ago that Fox is noodling around as a pilot. I'm just sort of getting into that world. Really, in the thick of the season, it's hard to develop that stuff but as we get to the end of the season � right now we're working on the finale - I can think of that a little more.
"Burn Notice" airs every Thursday night at 9:00/8:00c on USA.