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‘Burn Notice’ teaches ‘Think Like a Spy’


Jeffrey Donovan plays Michael Westen in the USA Network telelvision show 'Burn Notice'

All these have something in common:

  • Special Ops soldiers
  • Spies
  • Firefighters
  • Emergency medical responders
  • Martial arts students trained in reality-based scenarios

They all know things can go south in an instant. They must flow with both linear and non-linear thinking to save the day, get home safe, or at least minimize the damage of dangerous situations.

Non-linearΒ  — or outside the box — thinking is a bit like the U.S Marine’s unofficial motto: “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.” It means taking nothing for granted and making changes on the fly if necessary.

Two favorite television shows of mine highlight this kind of thinking. One was MacGyver (1985-92) and the newer Burn Notice.Β  Both shows let their characters save the day by outwitting the bad guys, often by using everyday items to create needed tools or distractions.

In Burn Notice, the main character is a blacklisted spy named Michael Westen. Michael and his two friends are fun to watch for a number of reasons, but I appreciate their “expedient thinking” skills, otherwise known as lying, pretending, or acting. In one episode, Michael plays a dumb guy fawning on a wanna-be criminal, but the whole time Michael controls the punk like a puppet master.

I don’t advocate following the Burn Notice way of using illegal and unethical schemes, but to Think Like a Black Belt and understand the more robust nature of self defense, it’s important to think outside the box as well. When your life is on the line, you are free to use many options, including lying to the bad guy to defend yourself. Simple lies are easier ( “Sssh! My husband is a cop, and he’s asleep in the next room!), but then there is the Burn Notice-type of Grand Lie – acting and pulling things together to make others believe you.

During last week’s episode, I wondered how the three main characters on Burn Notice would react in a road rage situation where escape was not an option. With their skills and weaponry, it could be over in a flash, but they like to outwit and use misdirection to avoid unpleasantness. If you are a Burn Notice fan or not, see if you think television is ready for these types of script options when a main character is facing a person exhibiting road rage:

NOTE: Ahem … I present the examples below as great moments in future television or movie script history and for entertainment and educational purposes only. I cannot suggest using these tactics, but only present them as educational material on how a fictional character might think outside the box.

SCENE ONE — Create an emergency

Main character: Stop! I know this was my fault. Stop! I have to get to the hospital … (then adds one of the following)

… My wife is having our baby, but the hospital staff says there’s some kind of problem with the delivery!

… My primary care physician called to say I caught the f***cking swine flu , and I need to get to the isolation ward before this thing spreads!

… I’m a surgeon. The governor was in a three-car pile up. The Emergency Room needs every trauma doc on hand STAT.

SCENE TWO — Act like you’re both in the same boat

Main character: Dude, chill! I saw a cop do a U-turn back there, I think someone called this in! I don’t want to be arrested.

Raging Driver: I DON”T GIVE A DAMN!

Main character: OK, maybe you don’t have kids, a wife, or a mom who reads the local police blotter, but I do! I don’t want them reading about me getting arrested … besides, I’ll lose my volunteer firefighter position – they hate when we get involved in traffic issues like this!

SCENE THREE — Get others to help

Main character: (To other drivers) Did you hear this guy? He wants to hurt my baby! Get back you monster! Someone please call 9-1-1.

SCENE FOUR — Act confused

Main character: (on sunny day in Miami): Hey, just because we’re in Colorado doesn’t mean I have the right to act this way! How much coffee did my mom give me?! And just because it’s snowing, too! I thought police in Argentina were crazy! Next thing you know Michael Jackson will be stopping by to visit! Did you see that? My goodness I think the aliens have landed. I can’t believe Nancy Pelosi is letting this country go to hell in a hand basket so quickly!

SCENE FOUR — Sex sells

Main character: Oh my. Your anger is turning me on! This is delicious! Say that last part again, please, with more anger this time!

Non-linear thinking in self defense — by television characters or in our lives — allows for more options. Most of us aren’t good enough actors or quick enough of wit to pull off the above scenes in real life without causing an escalation, but you can bet I’d keep even these options open – just in case they are the only ones left for me.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • TrinaMb July 13, 2009, 6:38 pm

    made me smile, like the out of the box approach, though your fictioal situations are a bit wacked πŸ™‚

  • Lori Hoeck July 13, 2009, 7:07 pm

    Hi TrinaMb —
    Laughing at your “a bit wacked” description. I found from teaching in karate classes that extreme or wacky scenarios can help stir the brain into newer ways of thinking and make the real lesson stick.

  • Kathy | Virtual Impax July 14, 2009, 10:41 am

    I too am a fan of the show. I especially love how the voice overs give the “why” behind the things the spies do.

    I love the “why’s”… because when you know the “why” it puts everything the character is doing into perspective. Many times, you’d be scratching your head at why he’s doing what he’s going – if you didn’t know the why behind it.

    Also – on the show- everything is carefully planned in advance … down to the smallest detail. They just don’t show up to a meeting place with a dangerous crimminal without first checking out the location and putting a plan in place to “keep their options open”.

    The show is a great “fit” with your message!

  • Lori Hoeck July 14, 2009, 11:09 am

    Hi Kathy,
    Yea, another fan of the show!
    Did you know he also does videos answering people’s questions at “Ask A Spy”?

  • Eliza July 15, 2009, 2:50 pm

    When I was running early in the morning, or walking home from the bus late at night, I would make up threatening scenarios in my mind and what I would say to deflect the situation. It was partly a game Iplayed with myself, but I totally suck at improv, so it was also a way to have a repetoire on hand should I ever need it. They pretty much fell in your categories, but maybe not as well scripted πŸ™‚

  • Lori Hoeck July 15, 2009, 3:26 pm

    Hi Eliza,

    Visualization is powerful stuff! Being alert, aware, and out of denial helps keep the bulls-eye off your back, too.

  • Patricia July 15, 2009, 8:58 pm

    I don’t have a TV and I usually don’t like crime drama kinds of things, but I did get all three of my kids a sport, some music, some art and Tae Kwon Doh ( not sure of the spelling) I learned a great deal from watching the classes. I also did my internship in the women’s section of the County Jail. Scary place to work sometimes – particularly drunk women who do not like themselves.

    I think of Carol Burnett the comedian telling the story of being followed home in NYC late one night…all of a sudden she turned around and acted crazy as a June bug and the fellow took off running the opposite direction – all that acting practice for a true life big event

  • Vered - MomGrind July 15, 2009, 10:26 pm

    I’ve never seen it! I really don’t watch enough TV. πŸ™‚

  • janice July 16, 2009, 5:59 am

    Hi Lori,
    I read the post, agreed with the sense of the visualisation and alert, aware readiness, but kept thinking…Who does she think she ‘s fooling?!If that’s the photo of the guy in the series, we know why she’s watching! πŸ˜‰

    My personal self defense gurus of choice would be, in no particular order and all together if possible would be:

    ~Jack Bauer (Sorry Vered, he’s from ’24’) He saves millions of lives in every series and never needs to eat, drink or go to the toilet.
    ~Jet Li
    ~Jackie Chan
    ~Patrick Jane (The main character from ‘The Mentalist ‘- he’s off the chart intuitive and has a smile that melts my TV addicted heart!

    But I do take your posts seriously, Lori – you know I do! πŸ˜‰

    Seriously, though, I do use TV to teach my kids. I often ask them “What would …..do in this situation?” It helps them develop the skills you mentioned above without giving them the anxiety/adrenalin rush that comes from envisioning themselves too deeply into a situation.

  • Lori Hoeck July 16, 2009, 8:15 am

    Hi Patricia,
    Great story about Carol Burnett — I can see her doing that. Loved her old show. I like Burn Notice because it is half comedy, half action, so not a lot of crazy crime drama involved.

    Hi Vered,
    It’s a fun and funny show, but I understand there’s just not enough time in the day, is there?

    Hi Janice,
    Jack used to be great, but his middle name should be “I’m screwed.” That got old for me.
    Jet Li and Jackie Chan — yep, yep, yep.
    Patrick Jane — cute, but a little too full of himself for me!

    And yes, you should see Jeffrey Donovan’s smile when he plays Michael Westen.

  • Matt (Ikigai) July 16, 2009, 11:58 pm

    Bruce Campbell is on that show right? I am a long time fan of his and the wit he always puts into his characters.

  • Lori Hoeck July 17, 2009, 9:18 am

    Hi Matt,
    Thanks for stopping by!

    Yes, Bruce Campbell has a great part. Actually, I really like all the characters and how they interact. Fun show all round.

  • John Hoff - WpBlogHost July 17, 2009, 3:53 pm

    I’ve never seen Burn Notice but I loved MacGyver when it was on. I’d watch the reruns if they were showing.

    I love thinking outside the box. A while back I picked up a book with lateral thinking puzzles. Really makes you think in different directions.

  • Lori Hoeck July 17, 2009, 7:35 pm

    Hi John,

    You are in luck — check out: http://www.cbs.com/classics/macgyver/ for old MacGyver episodes.

  • John Hoff - WpBlogHost July 17, 2009, 8:41 pm

    Sweet. I’m watching one now. Thanks!

  • Chiropractor July 21, 2009, 4:51 am

    Thanks for the review Lori, will definitely check this out as I am a big fan of ol’ macgyver myself. πŸ™‚

  • Lori Hoeck July 21, 2009, 9:05 am

    Hi Chiropractor,
    Thank you for commenting.
    MacGyver will always rock!

  • Marc July 23, 2009, 4:42 am

    MacGyver will indeed always rock. I’ve got the theme tune as my ring tone πŸ˜€

    HUGE inspiration for a disabled boy showing that brains win over brawn. Probably why I got into science as well.

    I digress. Your scenarios reminded me of something I learned years ago while watching a women’s self-defence class. The instructor told the ladies that if they were ever attacked, they should scream “Help! Fire!”. It had been statistically proven to be more effective than screaming “Help! I’m being attacked!” or just plain screaming.

  • Lori Hoeck July 23, 2009, 6:47 am

    Hi Marc,
    Your ring tone! How fun!

    I teach the same about yelling “Fire” to men, women, and kids; and mention it on my post entitled “Self defense and kids β€” how-to for parents.”