Banshee

Banshee debuts tonight on Cinemax at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Cinemax has trotted out two surprisingly strong action shows in the form of Strike Back and Hunted. Both programs were far better than anyone had any reasonable expectation for them to be so, with strong casts, evocative location shoots, and a seriousness of purpose that never devolved into overserious melodrama. Neither show would enter any Top Ten lists, but that’s beside the point: these shows know what they are, and more importantly, know how to execute things within the parameters of the action genre. Banshee is nominally the next iteration in this newfound brand for Cinemax, although early hours fail to measure up to the standards established by the other two shows. Could the show get there eventually? Quite possibly. But there’s quite a ways to go until that benchmark is achieved.

The first thing that stands out in Banshee is its setting. Even though the show is concerned with Ukranian crime lords (albeit ones largely unseen in the first two hours sent out for review), the action primary takes place in rural Pennsylvania, where Amish communities exist side-by-side with small-town America. An anonymous man (Antony Starr), fresh from a 15-year prison stint, heads there upon a lead from his former underworld contact. We never learn his name, because almost instantly after landing in the county that gives this show its name, the newly-hired sheriff is gunned down by thugs hired by a local crime lord Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen). Our John Doe assumes the identity of Lucas Hood, insinuating himself inside the town because said sheriff was hired sight unseen by the town’s young mayor to avoid Proctor’s long influence and deep pockets. The reason Doe/Hood came to this town in the first place? His former partner/lover Diana (Ivana Miličević) lives there under the assumed identity of Carrie Hopewell, potentially sitting on the stash for which he was arrested a decade and a half ago.

Sound overly complicated, increasingly convoluted, and altogether dull? You wouldn’t be wrong. Nearly every minute of the pilot is dedicated to the heavy lifting required to get this many balls in the air. Yet rather feeling like an overstuffed introduction to a complex world, the gears in Banshee creak along at a snail’s pace. Sure, The Con Artist Known As Hood engages in fisticuffs, and those brief fight scenes are plenty exciting. But too much of these early hours in the show are weighed down in far too much self-importance. Having stock plot elements and archetypal characters are fine for any genre project, so long as those two things are either executed at an exceedingly high level or given a unique twist that bucks audience expectation. Instead, everything plays out almost exactly as you might imagine. (When the newly installed sheriff has the choice to catch the man responsible for providing laced drugs at a rave held inside an Amish barn, or to save the life of the daughter of his ex-partner, what do YOU think he’ll do?)

Starr himself is a cipher in the first two hours. Having an enigmatic figure at the center of a show like this isn’t an inherently bad decision. But it’s difficult to assign any motivation to what he’s doing for most of the first two episodes. Part of his desire to assume Hood’s persona stems from solving a mystery from his past (as well as potentially hiding from it). But once installed as Sheriff, there’s precious little insight into what he learns about himself and the town inside his double life. Much of this self-discovery will undoubtedly form the dramatic arcs that unfold this season, so putting too much burden upon these initial outings. 

But there’s little sense of anything really happening behind his eyes to give even a hint as to his emotions for the majority of the time. Is he a master criminal? Not really. Is he a romantic? Kinda, but mostly in that “hey, it’s Cinemax, so…boobs!” sorta way. Is he morally conflicted? Does he enjoy being on the “right” side of the law because he can bend the rules or enforce them? These are all questions that are interesting for a show like this to pose, since the idea of essentially becoming someone else when fate offers up the opportunity is the stuff of great drama. But those questions are more or less ignored here. Mostly, Starr exists as a physical specimen to answer the question, “What would the offspring of Liev Schreiber and Stephen Amell look like?” It’s a great looking answer, but there’s little beyond the surface here.

That surface-level depth extends to the rest of the show. Banshee aims for Harlan County-esque quirks and characters, but Banshee is no Justified by any stretch. Everyone pretty much is how they seem, and says what they mean. Hood’s ex-partner? Why, she’s an incredibly hot woman that started a family with the local district attorney, but also has intense attraction for our protagonist. That elder cop passed over in favor of Hood for the sheriff’s position? Why, he thinks that job should be his, and simply can’t believe that Hood kicks ass first and asks questions later. The incredibly cute female officer who catches Hood unable to fill out basic police paperwork? Why, she’ll cover for him just because she’s that understanding. The ex-prizefighter (Frankie Faison) who is the first to meet Hood and the only one to know his real backstory? Why, he’ll offer up sage wisdom with just enough crassness to let us know he’s seen things in his time. ("It's what you call in the Bible a ‘clusterfuck of epic proportions’.") The only character to escape such single-dimension trappings early on is Proctor, who has ties to the Amish community that are only hinted at in the early goings. His code of ethics resembles those you’ve seen in other charismatic antagonists on other shows, but Thomsen offers up enough nuance to make him the most watchable aspect of the show at its outset.

Are any of the problems of this show unfixable? Absolutely not. The aforementioned Ukrainian gangster is played by Ben Cross, and his character Rabbit’s shadow looms large over the proceedings. That alone gives the show as a whole forward momentum. The moments of violence are fleeting, and well-staged, but would be more interesting if the show had an actual moral stance on the violence it shows. Maybe that perspective will evolve as the show goes on, but it’s entirely absent so far. In the second hour, the country’s underbelly starts to come into focus, so it’s possible the show’s attitude towards the violence it portrays onscreen will as well. But that’s a big “if”, since it’s unclear that Banshee has any real stance on anything it stages. That makes the violence as hollow as the holes its bullets produce. 

But by and large, this is a show that desperately needs energy in order to succeed over the long haul. We don’t need to like any of these people, but we need to know what makes them tick in order to understand what they hope to achieve. At present, these characters exist because the plot needs them to, not because they have any goals of their own that are driving the proceedings. This could be a case of Banshee needing time to get out of first gear, or an indication that it won’t be a charm this third time in the action genre for Cinemax.

Stray observations:

  • Much has been made about Alan Ball’s involvement in this show, but there’s little onscreen to suggest a heavy influence on the proceedings. You could look at Hood’s contact (who not only locates Diana but is handy with forging ID’s) as a possible link, but that’s only because that cross-dressing character feels directly imported from True Blood. There’s absolutely no reason to think Ball suggested this character, however.
  • Hood’s “nemesis” within the police department is played by Matt Servitto, who played Special Agent Dwight Harris on The Sopranos. Insert your own Journey joke here.
  • Early on, there’s a visual effect involving a bus that seems to indicate the show will have relatively high production values. At the end of these two episodes, it’s clear the show spent the majority of its budget on that single sequence. “Low-budget” doesn’t equal “low quality”, but it’s a bit weird to have a huge set piece at the start of what’s a small-scale thriller.
  • The one semi-subtle thing in the pilot: the original Hood is eating a steak when we first meet him, which suggests something about Proctor’s reach beyond the limits of his county border.