'Burn Notice' Creator Matt Nix Digs "Deeper" With His New USA Drama 'Complications'

"This is ... about a man who felt powerless coming to understand the nature of his own power," creator Matt Nix tells THR.
Daniel McFadden/USA Network

It's hard to decide what's more surprising: that Burn Notice creator Matt Nix went after the gang member who broke into his Echo Park, Calif. house, or that he used the horrifying home invasion as the inspiration for a TV show.

"The starting point of all of it was just examining the impulse in myself to follow this guy after confronting him in front of my house because, to be honest, I just didn’t really think about it," Nix tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It was not a rational decision and if I had approached it as a rational decision, I probably wouldn’t have done it. Thinking about that, and examining my own motives, that was the seed of it."

Thankfully, Nix's instincts paid off in both instances. He eventually made peace with the gang member who broke into his house  even after he testified at the trial  and ten years later his show Complications debuts on Thursday at 9 p.m. on USA. The drama centers on a married ER doctor named John Ellison (Jason O'Mara) who, mourning the death of his young daughter, intervenes in a gang shooting to save a young boy's life.

"In dealing with this situation, it actually made me more connected to my neighborhood because it made me see the gang members who previously had been these faceless people as individuals," says Nix.

He also spoke with THR about John's search for power, USA's "big swing" and more.

In the pilot, John is still reeling from his daughter's death. How does that change him and with the events of the first episode, how does that affect his healing process going forward?

The thing I thought a lot about in working on the show was the idea that  and I think we all experience it  is that when something happens that's terrible, what are we ultimately looking for? What is healing? Is it just forgetting about it? In the case of something like that, that's exactly what you don't want. You don’t want to forget about the death of someone that you love. You want it to be for something. You want it to be worthwhile. You want it to mean something. You want to be able to honor the memory of someone or somehow mark that moment in time as important and meaningful.

John doesn’t have that about his daughter's death. It was simply a tragedy that he feels like maybe he could have averted had he figured it out earlier. There was nothing he could do and then she died. He doesn’t find resolution in the cases that come into the ER. The cases that come into the ER are tragic and complicated and impossible to resolve on the day. As an ER doctor, you just stabilize patients and hand them off to other doctors and often times you don’t know what happens to them. Which is exactly the opposite of what you want when you're trying to heal from a tragedy like that. Then this situation presents itself where there's a young boy who's close to his daughter's age who he can save, and although he's not excited about the circumstances and in some ways he feels like he wants out, at the same time, there's a part of this that's drawing him in because there is some resolution there. If there is an opportunity to have his daughter's death mean something and if seeing this thing through, as hard as it is, is something that he can do then I think that for him emotionally means something, vis-à-vis his daughter's death. He can tell himself if that's what it took to make me stronger for this, that maybe there is some meaning in that.

How else can you say this moment that John saves this boy's life, and the complications that stem from that, will change his life and also change him as a person?

In a lot of ways. This is, to some extent, a story over the course of the season about a man who felt powerless coming to understand the nature of his own power, and a man who felt like he was without purpose finding a purpose, so that's a big part of it. In the first part of the season, he really resists this situation and is talking about how he's not prepared for it and he really can't do this and he's trying to get out of it but at a certain point it becomes clear that that's not going to happen. Certainly by the middle of the season, he's confronting this head-on and he's taking on not only responsibility for this situation but other situations that have arisen. By the end, he is a changed guy. He's not excited about it. He doesn’t wake up in the morning going, "I can't wait to get out there and put myself in harm's way and be in these desperate circumstances," but he's clearly someone who can handle them. In the pilot you can see that that seed is planted.

Coming off of Burn Notice, which ran for seven seasons and more than 100 episodes, did you have certain things you knew you wanted to do as a writer or didn't want to do?

Having worked on Burn Notice for a while, I spent a lot of time in the world of close-ended solutions. The way that show worked was Michael Westen encountered a problem and  this changed a bit in the later seasons when the show was much more serialized — but certainly at the beginning there would be a situation and, because we needed to generate another client of the week the next week, you really couldn't have a whole lot of carryover from one thing to the next. There's a certain satisfaction in solving a problem definitively. One of the things that I got interested in personally, just because it wasn't what we got to do, was the idea that actions have consequences and people and solutions to problems cause other problems. The medical analogy was really potent there. Medicine is a great thing but pretty much every medicine comes with side effects and every surgery is a wound that has to heal and can have it's own complications.

 The storytelling on Burn Notice took place over years and the relationship of one episode to the next in time was sort of fuzzy in the sense that something happened and nobody ever commented on it. In this, the whole season takes place over 17 days. A couple of the episodes take place almost in real time so that also was a really exciting thing to be able to do.

Like you said, the later seasons of Burn Notice were more serialized so how did that influence you and help you in planning this series and this season?

One lesson you learn is it's not a good idea to have the goal of the characters in episode seven be basically to get to episode eight (Laughs). You need everybody to be constantly focused like people would be in life on solving their problems now. We used it to call it trying to score a touchdown on every down. That kind of storytelling kept the energy up and it was great. One thing I just noticed in the later seasons of Burn Notice, which was fantastic, is the kind of character work you get to do when you get to tell a longer, more serialized story is just deeper. When you can carry over the emotional consequences of something from one episode to the next, you can have someone have something happen in episode three and be haunted by it until episode seven. Then it gets resolved then and you don’t have to have this hermetically sealed character work which … its not like I hated doing it. There was something elegant about bringing a story around to an emotional resolution so that you could start the next episode with a new slate but it's almost like a different form. It's like writing a sonnet. Its very structured and you know how it ends and its got to do certain things in a certain order. With the more serialized, its just more freewheeling. It's more like writing a novel.

USA has also moved towards darker, more serialized shows, so how has it been working with them?

When you think about a network that decides to change it up, you want a network to have the courage of its convictions and really take a big swing and do something cool and different. Certainly the two shows that are premiering within a few weeks of each other  there are no other crime shows with doctors about doctors not doing medicine on television (Laughs). No one else is doing that and there are no other shows about hackers with profound psychological problems fighting the system [Mr. Robot]. So it's exciting to be at a network where they're really taking legitimate swings.

The first season you said only spans over 17 days. If this goes to a season two, does it just pick up on the next day? Have you thought about that and how serialized the show will be in future seasons?

In future seasons, the resolution, such as it is, of the situation in the first season a.) changes John and b.) leaves him with allies and enemies and c.) involves him doing a bunch of stuff that has consequences ongoing so the second season wouldn’t be about John's involvement with gangs. The first season sets up who he is going forward and what he has to deal with. In some sense, John's a new guy. He's a guy who is much more willing to go out and mix it up and has acquired a taste for it in ways that are healthy and sometimes profoundly unhealthy. One thing that we explore throughout the season is the idea that John is terrified by what he's doing but in a way, every time he resolves a problem, there's a sense of power, there's a feeling of potency. Everything that he's been missing in his life is suddenly there. While he knows it's not a great idea to put himself in those situations, it's also the source of vitality in his life and reconnection with his marriage and access to meaning in the wake of his daughter's death. It has some of the characteristics of an addiction. It's not something he can set aside easily.

Complications kicks off with a special two-hour premiere on Thursday at 9 p.m. on USA.

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