If Wile E. Coyote were an action hero, using his powers for good instead of evil and bucking for redemption, he’d be a lot like Lucas Hood (Antony Starr), the hero of the Cinemax series Banshee. Hood can take a lot of punishment, but after beating pounded into a bloody mess, he always gets right back up and restarts the healing process. And unlike the Coyote, he can give as good as he gets. Banshee is the name of the small Pennsylvania town where the show is set, and the hero doesn’t actually have a name, at least none that the show has yet to share with us. He stepped into the role of Hood, the new sheriff in town, after the actual Lucas Hood was murdered right in front of him by thugs working for Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), the Amish gangster who thinks the town belongs to him.
In the premiere, Lucas buried the bodies and took over the sheriff’s office and identity; he needed a means to stick around, because the woman he loves—“Carrie Hopewell,” who is really Anastasia (Ivana Millcevic), the runaway daughter of a Ukranian mob boss, Mr. Rabbit (magnificently played by the pulp Daniel Day-Lewis, Ben Cross)—is living there, with her blandly upright husband, their small son, and a daughter, Ryann (Siobhan Kelly). “Lucas”—his real name has never been revealed—and Anastasia were secretly lovers, and she was pregnant with Ryann when they went their separate ways, after he was caught and sent to prison for 15 years. In any episode in which the scenes set in the present don’t present Lucas with enough opportunities to get his face bashed in, the show can always flash back to his prison days, when, as always, he was surrounded by people who did not care for the cut of his jib and who felt little incentive to repeat the Serenity Prayer and get on with their lives. There aren’t really many episodes that are lacking for ultra-violent fights in the scenes set in the present, but sometimes the show flashes back to prison anyway.
After producing some interesting comedy specials and importing Max Headroom to the U. S. back in the 1980s, Cinemax seemed to have lost its taste for original scripted programming for some two decades; it appeared to be content to claim the coolest nickname any cable channel ever earned for the abundance of nudity and soft-core porn on its late-night schedule. But in the last year or so, the channel has awakened from its torpor, with a string of action series—Strike Back, the late, lamented Hunted, and now Banshee—that all feature extreme violent scenes and, especially in the cases of Strike Back and Banshee, sex scenes that are staged with such acrobatic, wild-eyed, teeth-gritting enthusiasm that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see judges sitting at the foot of the bed, waiting to hold up scorecards. (The sex scenes in this show look like what teenage boys imagined sex scenes to be like when they looked at the movie stills in Playboy.) You've heard of "overwrought"? Most of the time, Banshee feels just wrought enough.
All these shows have their virtues, but Banshee has the distinction of being the most nuts. Did you pause to re-read, or savor the moment, several sentences back when you encountered the phrase “Amish gangster?” Banshee feels as if it were made by people who heard the words “Amish gangster” come at them in a story conference and resolved not to even blink. “Yeah, and of course, the Amish gangster will have uncomfortable run-ins with his family, who shun him. And by the end of the first season, he’ll take in his niece, who has been driven out of the community for having makeup and fashion magazines, and he’ll tutor her in the workings of his criminal organization, while we hint that there may be some powerful incestuous feelings burning a hole in his lower extremities. She’ll have been fucking the sheriff, of course. You want to pass the cream cheese?”
Banshee’s brazenness about its own over-the-top qualities makes it seem as if the show is taking place in its own daft but fully realized universe, which makes it easier to shrug off the sheer implausibility of Lucas’ being able to keep his ruse going, even after his head-busting exploits show up in viral videos and attract the attention of federal authorities. The show’s self-awareness about its own absurdity also makes it possible for it to revel in the ways in which a sociopathic career criminal posing as a sheriff can sometimes mete out justice more effectively than someone who feels like some obligation to observe the rules and regulations and other standard legal niceties, without seeming to endorse handing out badges and guns to self-righteous vigilantes. (When Lucas marches into a high school to take out the robbers who are caught in a hostage situation, or goes hammerhead to hammerhead with a famous boxer who’s a rapist, he isn’t self-righteous, just fed up with this shit.)
But for all its madness, the show also has a genuine emotional core, thanks largely to the acting. Frankie Faison does wonders with the musty role of Sugar, a retired boxer who knows that Lucas is planning something and wants in. Hoon Lee is pure comic-book-sidekick heaven as Job, the resident wisecracking transvestite computer genius who will kick your ass through your hat if you mess with him, and he doesn’t have a Glock handy. Ivana Millicevic, who briefly lit up Vegas for a few episodes before the show killed her off, as if in despair over not knowing how to use her, is ferocious yet touching as Anastasia, the soccer mom with a secret identity (and a weapons cache buried in the back yard.) In the most charged scenes, her desire not to blow up her life runs straight on, head to head, with Lucas’ conviction that they’re meant to be together. Her might be onto something: She can take a lot of punishment too, and, like him, is also a fast healer.
The series finale doesn’t resolve much of what’s been building up so far; it lets it come to a boil and then hits the reset button, to be resumed when the show returns next year. It’s not Antony Starr’s finest hour, but that’s not his fault; he spends most of his time tied to a chair, at Ben Cross’ mercy, finding it harder and harder to push his smartass remarks through his swollen lips as his makeup gets pulpier and pulpier. (Starr’s best scenes here are in tonight’s prison flashbacks, depicting his sparring with a therapist interviewing him in anticipation of his parole hearing.) Anastasia’s family learns the truth about her, she and Lucas’ friends and fellow cops stage a rescue mission, and Anastasia gets to put a few slugs in her dad; his body is missing and unaccounted for by the time the credits roll, but unless those bullets were silver and blessed by a priest, he’ll be back.
Compared to most of what has preceded it, the finale is the most pro forma hour in Banshee’s short life, but even it puts a few spins on the clichés it falls back on. Kai Proctor has been warring with a young Native American chief who doesn’t want to continue the relationship that Proctor had with the chief’s dead father. After the chief dispatches a hit man to Proctor’s house, his evening is interrupted when someone drops a box containing the assassin’s detached noggin on his front lawn. Echoing the words of many a gangster who has seen The Godfather, Part II, he rages. “This is my home!” His sister looks at him as if he were batshit: “So you’re upset that the man who cut off the head of the man you sent to kill him isn’t respecting your privacy?” By the closing moments of the finale, the show hasn’t left itself much room to maneuver in its second season, but what fun would there be in leaving yourself a clear path out of the corner you’ve painted yourself into? Having enjoyed this season, I’m looking forward to seeing where the show can go from here, just so long as they don’t do anything really self-destructive and crazy. What I’m saying is, have Ben Cross come back as a zombie, bring Christoph Waltz on as Kai Proctor’s prodigal brother, stick Frankie Faison and Hoon Lee in bed together, but whatever you do, don’t monkey with that opening credits sequence. There’s nuts, and then there’s just nuts.