12 August 2007

More Guilt, More Pleasure

Last fall, I wrote about how much I enjoyed the (now-dead) TV series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The guilt, I said, came from “a small tug at the conscience that all this talent and energy should be expended on something as un-serious as a television show about the making of a television show.” Well, that was nothing compared to my new favorite guilty pleasure, the USA Network’s series Burn Notice.


I have always been a fan of well-constructed espionage entertainment, whether entirely earnest or with a dose of farce: I love James Bond, and Get Smart, too, and for thick, page-turning beach reading I can admit that I have enjoyed my fair share of Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy over the years. The “thriller” genre itself is of limited interest; I tend to read such books on an author-specific basis. Indeed, my current favorite “thriller” writer is Barry Eisler, whose series of novels about a Japanese-American assassin named John Rain are tightly-constructed and detail-driven (we always know what kind of wine Rain is drinking – and whether he likes it), without being unnecessarily wordy (as, alas, some Ludlum and Clancy books often are).

Eisler’s latest, Requiem for An Assassin, came out earlier this year, and the character has developed further, become just a little more human. Rain’s conscience has always been a mixed bag of compartmentalized rationalizations, representing a person struggling to do the right thing even as he has been hired (and makes his living) off of doing the wrong thing. But even as Eisler has made Rain more sympathetic, the book still delivers on what any reader of this genre wants: crisp, clear action, and in the case of Rain, action that one rarely can anticipate fully. (As someone commented here, these books are a movie series waiting to happen...)


It was while watching Burn Notice that the guilty pleasure linking these things together really kicked into play. The series’ main character, Michael Westen, is much more sympathetic than John Rain right off the bat, owing to his circumstances: he’s been fired, mid-mission, by whatever intelligence agency once employed him. (If one goes back to the beginning of Eisler’s series, Rain Fall, for comparison, our first meeting with Rain is through a clean, natural-looking assassination he performs in Japan.) Westen is trying to piece his life back together, figure out why he got fired, sort out his situation with ex-girlfriend Fiona, and earn a living in the interim as a part-time “fix-it” guy, which is to say, fixing the kind of problems an ex-spy would be good at.

The Westen and Rain characters have a lot in common, from their knowledge of technology to their understanding of the need for a MacGyver-like ingenuity; sometimes, simplicity really is best. Much like Rain, Westen doesn’t want to be a nice guy, but fundamentally he is, no matter how hard he tries to shake that persona (and, in the end, he’s nicer than Rain). Moreover, the Burn Notice episodes and the Rain novels have a lot in common in the way they link together the central character’s actions, the support (often grudgingly accepted) of the surrounding cast, the slightly-pedantic approach to their audience – teaching us, rather directly, about what they’re doing, and why – and the rather persistent ability of both men to see the absurdity of their lives and their situations.


If these things suit your tastes, I say: enjoy! And if one wants to go one leap further from ex-spy Westen and aging assassin Rain, try Lawrence Block’s series about hit man John Keller, like Hit Man.


At 2:30 PM, Blogger Jackie said...

Honestly, I have only seen a bit of the show, but the MacGuyver-ish aspect is appealing. I don't watch very much TV because I'm scared to get invested in a show that's just going to get axed (Firefly, Wonderfalls), but it seems as though TV has missed a plucky hero who does the improbable as thoroughly as MacGuyver or Westen.


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