With the obvious exception of Baltimore, the most fashionable American city in which to set a cop show with a twist lately seems to be Miami. Perhaps Michael Mann’s big screen remake of Miami Vice has something to do with it. The same year that movie came out, the first season of Dexter went on the air. The eponymous hero (played by Michael C. Hall) is a forensics expert with the Miami PD. In his spare time he kills murderers who’ve escaped more regular forms of justice. He thinks of himself as a serial killer, and that’s the show’s ostensible conceit: Our hero’s a serial killer! But, that aside, he’s a nice guy! It’s a bit more cunning than that, though, because Dexter’s in many ways less like an actual serial killer – in which case he’d be killing prostitutes, not other murderers – than any number of regular crime-fighting vigilante heroes on TV, in the movies, in comic books or pulp fiction. As well as inviting its viewers to imagine a serial killer as a hero, Dexter is asking us to see a certain kind of all-American hero as a serial killer.
A different kind of all-American hero gets a makeover in Burn Notice, which started a year later (season three has just begun on TV in the UK; season two will be out on DVD shortly). Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) is one of those impossibly capable secret agents (like Jason Bourne) who, if they really existed, would keep America from ever getting bogged down in wars they couldn’t win. But someone high up in Washington has something against Westen and so he’s been ‘burned': that’s spytalk for ‘sacked’, and it’s a more thorough process than being handed a cardboard box full of your personal effects and shown the door. Westen loses all his spy perks, has his assets frozen, is beaten up, knocked unconscious and comes round in Miami, where he sets up as a private eye while trying to find out who burned him.
The show’s creator, Matt Nix, was born in 1971, and must have grown up watching not only Miami Vice but also all those other wonderful, absurd series of the 1980s like The A-Team, Knight Rider, Magnum PI and MacGyver. Burn Notice is, in part, a nostalgic yet knowing distillation of the best elements of each of those shows, irresistible to boys (and girls) of a certain age. But there’s a not-so-covert political subtext to the series too. Westen, the revitalised embodiment of a stale fantasy of invincible American might, is forced to give up interfering in Afghanistan and come home to help – the typical formula for an episode – ordinary working folk who are being preyed on by rich and unscrupulous criminals. If only Barack Obama hadn’t been too busy on the campaign trail back in 2007 to watch an episode or two.