Spies, More Spies & The Rebirth of Jessica Fletcher. Sort of.

Just when I thought my television was going to become little more than an extravagant dust collector after a string of great shows recently drew to a close, whether temporarily (“Glee”, “The Good Wife”, “The Mentalist”) or permanently (“Brothers & Sisters”; damn you to Hell, ABC! *shakes fist*), along comes a fresh crop to maintain my square eyes.

First up is the return of “Burn Notice”, season three to be precise, Tuesdays at 9pm on 5* (Freeview channel 30). If you’ve not caught it before, the basic premise revolves around burned spy Michael Weston (played by Jeffrey Donovan) and his ongoing quest to find out who and why he has been given a burn notice, all the while being trapped in Miami. Aiding him along the way are his old friend Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell) and trigger-happy, ex-girlfriend Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar). Also on the scene is Michael’s slightly cranky, perma-smoking mother, Madeline, (played by the wonderful Sharon Gless aka CHRISTINE CAGNEY!!) who can be as much a hindrance as a help.

"Burn Notice" cast (l-r): Sharon Gless, Bruce Campbell, Jeffrey Donovan, Gabrielle Anwar

The episodes tend to be stand-alone affairs, where Michael and his gang help someone in need. These cases often involve helping to retrieve a kidnapped relative being held to ransom, a client trying to escape some shady people that they’ve unintentionally become involved with, or something similar. Although occasionally they work pro bono, generally it’s how they make a living, as well as funding Michael’s pursuit of the truth behind his burn notice.

The tone of the show is pretty tongue-in-cheek, with both Fiona and Madeline being very strong-willed women and Michael and Sam being the long-suffering counterparts, prone to bouts of sarcasm. That’s not to say that Burn Notice doesn’t have its fair share of drama, gun fights and explosions; we are in the world of spies after all, oh, and Fiona is an explosives expert so her skills are usually required. As a show, it deftly handles the balance between being a fun show, without veering into vacuous-fluff territory like “Charmed“, as well as a drama, without becoming too serious, like say, “24“. If you enjoy shows like “The Mentalist” or the classic 60s show “The Avengers” then, like me, you’ll probably find a lot to love in “Burn Notice”.

Keeping with the spy theme, a show I’ve only recently started watching is the ridiculous yet hilarious animated comedy “Archer” (Tuesdays 10.30pm, 5*). Think Austin Powers, but without all the “groovy, baby” shtick, yet maintaining some of the ’60s styling and you’re half-way there.

The “Archer” of the title is Sterling Malory Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin), a 36 year old man with a horny, teenage boy’s mentality who is (rather unbelievably, though therein lies the humour) the top agent at the fictional International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS) based in New York. He’s surrounded by Malory Archer (Jessica Walter), the head of ISIS and also his mother; Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), the top female agent at ISIS as well as his ex; then there are a gaggle of administrative and lower ranking agents that flesh out the cast, each with their own unhinged personalities.

For some reason one of the things that struck me about this show was its quick pace; of course like the cliché goes, “time flies when you’re having fun”, so it’s probably indicative of my enjoyment of the show that I felt that the episodes don’t drag when I watch them. The majority of the show’s humour is adult in nature, though it doesn’t resort to gross-out, explicit or lavatorial humour.

Much like the equally hilarious “Family Guy”, “Archer” shares the same zany stupidity, occasional slap-stick and utilisation of cut-away scenes to make jokes. The zinging, high quality scripts mean the show feels very sharp and almost relentless, but in a good way. If you like the humour of shows from the Seth MacFarlane stable (though incidentally this isn’t made by him or his team) then you’ll more than likely enjoy “Archer” too.

Last but by no means least is the new (to Freeview) show called “Castle” (Fridays 9pm on Five), starring the always likeable Nathan Fillion as the (Richard) Castle of the title, who is a best-selling mystery crime writer much like one JB Fletcher from “Murder, She Wrote“; however, this is pretty much where the similarity ends.

The style of the show is more akin, if anything, to the BBC show “Jonathan Creek” than “Murder, She Wrote”, what with the playful banter that occurs between the two leads. Whereas Jessica Fletcher seemed to be the bringer of death to anyone she came in to contact with (seriously, why the hell didn’t the people of Cabot Cove and elsewhere avoid her like the plague?!), Castle comes into contact with murder cases in a much more believable fashion.

By the end of the pilot episode Castle has decided to use Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), the NYPD detective on this case, as the inspiration for his next book; this is because in his last book he killed off the popular protagonist effectively also killing his bestselling series of crime novels, his reason being that he had become tired of the character and bored, creatively speaking. This new direction naturally requires him to shadow Beckett while she works, so Castle becomes involved with cases by proxy and often gives his (unwanted) opinion, much to the irritation of Beckett, especially as it’s frequently insightful and correct.

Like with shows such as “The X Files“, “Moonlighting” and “The Avengers” (the Emma Peel era), the spark between the two leads of “Castle” is a significant part of the appeal, where the classic “will they/won’t they” trope comes into play. Personally I feel it’s always better to leave this sexual tension unresolved, with the possible exception of using it at the final conclusion to the show, i.e. after cancellation or when the creators of the show decide to end it.

At the start of this year “Castle” was renewed for a fourth season, so it will be interesting to see how the writers deal with this ongoing issue, especially if they get a lot of pressure from the (rabid) fans. For the moment, however, “Castle” is fast becoming one of my favourite shows and I heartily recommend it.


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