Alan Sepinwall points out that last night’s Burn Notice was a great variation on an old chestnut of a plot, the bank heist/hostage situation that just happens to break out while the hero is there. I think one key to the success of Burn Notice is that even though it has big overriding mysteries involving Michael, many of the episodic plots are old-fashioned in the best way: they’re stories about Michael helping people who are being picked on by those who are bigger, stronger and more powerful than they are. People falsely accused of crimes, in trouble with drug smugglers, victims of all sorts: people who in real life wouldn’t have a hope in hell of winning, but who, in this world, are lucky enough to have Michael Westen and his MacGyver-esque brilliance working for them. It’s a type of plot that always works, but works even better in an era when the little guy seems to be losing even more than usual. Matt Nix even built one of the recent stories around Michael trying to help a guy get back the money he lost to scam artists; no plot could be more satisfying in times like these.
As I said earlier, Knight Rider tried to get back to this type of story, but too late; they should have been doing it from the beginning like the original show did. And one potential weakness with the episodic plots on Dollhouse is that, because the Dolls mostly work for wealthy clients, the plots don’t have the emotional punch they might otherwise have. They’re using all the sure-fire plots about saving kidnap victims and such (one of the upcoming episodes, which I haven’t seen, has Echo going undercover as a singer to protect a pop star from being killed; even David Hasselhoff went undercover as a singer, for God’s sake), but with clients who can actually afford to pay.