The Burn/Magnum Experiment Part 2
July 20, 2011
Well, there’s been a lot of watching TV at my house. I have completed season one of the Burn/Magnum experiment where I have a close look at Burn Notice and Magnum P.I. Here are the findings.
Yes, both shows take place in tropical locations (Magnum P.I. in Hawaii and Burn Notice’s Michael Westen in Miami), but the locations are used differently. In Magnum, Hawaii is the background, literally. While the characters talk, we the viewers look behind them to the lush mountain or the steaming volcano or, most often, the gorgeous beaches. Miami is more of a setting than a backdrop for Burn Notice. Quick video montages of stylish buildings and bustling beaches fill the spaces between scenes, but in addition the plot of the show interacts with Miami culture. There are frequent interactions with fashion designers, night clubs, and other popular components of Miami culture.
The characters are the big difference, though. Magnum is rather childish. He jokes a lot and uses his binoculars to have a look at women on the beach. Also, he doesn’t know how to express himself. Magnum talks about his feelings in voiceovers, but he is so out of touch with his own feelings that Higgins (the parent figure) often has to put them into words for him.
In Burn Notice, Michael Westen almost defines professionalism. His internal dialogue (the voiceover) is very objective—he describes spycraft, how to plan a knife defense, what to do when someone tries to kill you, …you get the idea. Westen is experienced, professional, and controlled.
But, the main thing I’m taking away from this Burn/Magnum experiment is the perspective of the expert instead of the beginner. A lot of current books and movies tell the stories of novices—amateurs who find themselves called upon to solve a mystery or face some great challenge that they are not at all prepared for. In these stories, we the readers learn about the world as the character learns about it. For example, we learn about magic when Harry Potter explores Hogwarts and the surrounding territory.
But in Burn Notice, we hear not the novice but the expert. We learn about the story world as the expert explains it to us. Personally, I find this method refreshing. I always get mad at amateur detectives for not following the obvious leads that I would have followed right away (though it is a tribute to J.K. Rowling’s skill that she can eke out clues over an entire year at Hogwarts). I prefer the expert. Finally, I think, there is someone ahead of me in the adventure. I’m not trying to get the character to catch up with me; I’m following right along trying to take notes about how to do spy things. Like lose a tail. For example:
Figuring out if a car is tailing you is mostly about driving like you're an idiot. You speed up, slow down, signal one way, turn the other. ...Actually, losing a tail isn't about driving fast. A high-speed pursuit is just gonna land you on the six o'clock news. So you just keep driving like an idiot until the other guy makes a mistake.
That’s the life skill I need to know. Thanks, Burn Notice.