One of the many things I talk about in The Scribbler’s Guide to the Land of Myth deals with franchise storytelling. This can cover comic book series, sets of movies, television shows or a string of novels. Most such creations are built on what I call the “Incidental Jeopardy” context: that means that in any specific story, your main character (upon whom the franchise depends) has a 50/50 chance of failing to meet his or her goal. But some other series get set up where the main character is driven by some burning goal. I call this the “Constant Jeopardy Syndrome,” where the set up is such that if the main character ever reaches his goal or solves the Big Problem of his life, the series ends.
In the book, I discuss the problems encountered with the Constant Jeopardy Syndrome, especially that involved in keeping the characters emotionally realistic. The point is that when over a long span of time a character fails to solve the Main Problem in his life, he tends to lose emotional credibility, especially if the constant failure doesn’t seem to faze him.
Cable’s USA show Burn Notice is constructed on a Constant Jeopardy Syndrome: Michael Westen used to be a spy and got burned — this means he has been black-listed and rendered an official non-person, no bank accounts, no official records (driver’s license or passport). The series deals with his attempts to find out who burned him, why, and his getting himself reinstated. (And if he ever achieves all of these, it’s likely the show would end.)
Since Michael is presented from the beginning as being one of the very best at his job, if he did not make some progress in his quest to solve his Big Problem, we would quickly lose interest. Fortunately, the series creator and writers address this by giving Michael progressive stages of existence (professional and personal problems) to deal with.
One of the first obstacles he has to face is that he has been dropped into his hometown of Miami, Florida, where he has to deal with his mother.
Madeline Westen is expert at wielding emotional blackmail over Michael — which works because at rock bottom, Michael is a good guy and does love his mother. Madeline also serves to show that although Michael may be officially a non-person, he also needs to relearn how to be a real person, with a real (ie, emotional) life.
Madeline is assisted in this by the presence of Fiona — the love of Michael’s life.
Fiona’s “official” position is “not his girlfriend.” Except that she is his ideal partner. The ups and downs of their relationship ring true, for they are dealing with real issues: the nature of Michael’s old job, what that job requires of his character, how to accommodate another person deeply into your life.
The two characters are alternately obstacles and assistants in Michael’s hunt for information and reinstatement.
First after being burned, he was watched by FBI minders. He upped the stakes on them, to the point where a special overseer was assigned to keep Michael subdued.
It’s a new problem in Michael’s way, which he removes over the course of a few episodes by creating the appearance that the overseer has been compromised. This leads to the mysterious organization that burned him revealing itself slightly.
The series very carefully continues revealing obstacles for Michael to overcome. Each step forward also reveals more of his own character to Michael. First, he seeks to put a face to his new “manager”, Carla, and in fact draws her out to revealing herself.
She tells him she helped burn him in order to recruit him to the secret organization she serves. She sets Victor to “manage” Michael.
Victor is like Michael (ie, burned), “but with rabies” (according to Sam Axe, Michael’s friend and sidekick). Michael transforms Victor from opponent to ally and the pair remove Carla, forcing the organization’s Management to reveal himself. Michael is offered better conditions in the organization, under the threat of removal of their protections (from enemies and authorities).
Michael opts to reject the protection and the job. The new set of obstacles in his way toward reinstatement include dealing with a police detective who has suspicions that Michael is behind some unusual occurances in town.
Michael succeeds in turning her from opponent to an at least hands-off observer. So the next obstacle steps up. “The Devil” (Strickler) offers Michael assistance at reinstatement, in exchange for Michael working for him.
This is too much for Fiona, who questions what this deal will do to Michael’s character. This emotional “real person” challenge conflicts with Michael’s desire to be an “official person” again.
Every time Michael progresses closer to his goal, either a new obstacle gets in his way, or the goal becomes slightly redefined and moved. The writers avoid all the traps of the Constant Jeopardy Syndrome: failure to make any progress toward the goal and/or lack of emotional reality. The audience is satisfied by the proof that Michael is indeed as competent as claimed (he makes progress), and also maintains a realistic emotional response to both his successes and failures. The show is a fine example of how to handle the Constant Jeopardy Syndrome.
[I was going to write about Burn Notice in regard to other motifs, but I may come back to them later.]
(Pictures and characters are property of Fox Television and Fuse Entertainment.)