Screenshot: Sharon Gless is a shot of sunshine

Living as I do in the SF Bay Area, our definition of "winter" includes things like rain storms that turn the Pacific a cloudy bottle green and flush the hills with tender new growth. Sure, it's a drag wearing a jacket, but one does what one must in January.

However, I understand that the rest of the country is in the throes of winter madness -- indeed, Monday allegedly will be the most depressing day of the year -- and your pain-in-the-ass domestic chore is not having to double up on the weeding but having to scrape off the windshield before driving to work.

Let me recommend a cure: Burn Notice, which airs at 10 p.m. on Thursdays on the USA Network. (And plays for free on Hulu.)

The show follows your basic USA Network formula: protagonist is generally a good guy who resorts to mildly unorthodox methods to pursue the vocation s/he loves and s/he uses to make the world a better place. The protagonist has an array of sidekicks-cum-surrogate family members who add color and/or romantic tension. And the stories are generally self-contained enough to avoid putting off drop-in viewers, but manage to dangle enough forward momentum to reward regulars who want to see a plot arcing over a season.

But what sets this one aside is that it's in warm, sunny Miami. Truly, it's a visual tonic for anyone who is tired of bare tree branches, the skim-milk color of a pallid winter sky, and looking at people bundled up in lumpy, drab winter clothing. People run around in brightly-patterned shirts and skimpy shifts the color of sherbet.

And Burn Notice is worth watching because the two primary female characters on the show -- protagonist Michael Westen's mother Madeline (Sharon Gless) and his on-again girlfriend Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar) -- have managed to slyly build two strong and compelling personalities within the strict boundaries of USA's dramatic formula. They bring out everyone else's A-game and lift this show from a boys-running-around-with-guns caper into something that brings home the human costs and moral balances of life on the margins of legality.

As played by Gless, Madeline -- sporting shoulder-dusting earrings, a Guy Fieri haircut and a perpetual cigarette dangling between frosted-coral lips -- cannily works the motherly-retiree angle as a way of getting people's guards down (including her son's) and then mercilessly imposing her will on them. Truly, she's an inspiration for anyone looking for an alternative to today's youth-obsessed TV culture. And Anwar's Fiona is a bundle of sharp bones and sharpshooting, fearlessly fighting for whom she sees as underdogs and exploiting those she doesn't like. While I knew Anwar had serious comic chops -- watch her as Princess Margaret in the first season of The Tudors for proof -- Gless's tongue-in-cheek homage to the Golden Girls is a really nice surprise.

Although his show is ostensibly about disgraced spy Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) and his efforts to get back to killing on the taypayers' dime, every episode makes clear that his real motivation is trying to stay out of the way of the formidable women in his life -- women, he's made clear, he can't live without. If you're feeling the winter blahs, do yourselves a favor and add this show to your Hulu queue. You'll be glad for the female-friendly sunshine.

by Lisa Schmeiser
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