Strike Back debuts tonight on Cinemax at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Is it possible for a show to feel like a throwback to something that only left the air a year ago? If so, then Cinemax’s new series Strike Back feels like the best 24 throwback made yet, an impressively paced little piece of TV that functions almost perfectly as a way to get you your weekly allotment of nudity and violence in 50 minutes or less. Produced by Cinemax in collaboration with the British company Sky Broadcasting and filmed mostly in South Africa, the show’s transnational feel is what best sets it apart from that earlier show (which could never talk its parent network into letting it film a season overseas), but for the most part, this is a nicely accomplished riff on the tough guys ‘n guns aesthetic of Jack Bauer and friends.
Cinemax, long the tawdry, sex-obsessed younger brother of HBO, has chosen Strike Back as its first foray into original scripted programming. (The network has been airing something it picked up called Femme Fatales as well, but it’s seemed mildly embarrassed about it and is promoting Strike Back as its first original show.) And the differences between Strike Back and HBO’s programming reflect the differences between the channels’ aims. Where HBO has long wanted to be seen as somewhat cultured and refined, airing the “best” of Hollywood’s output, sports, documentaries, made-for-TV movies, miniseries, and some of the most acclaimed original programming ever produced, Cinemax has always been the home to the less acclaimed films in the HBO library, stuff well past its sell-by date, and soft-core porn. When you think “HBO,” it’s pretty easy to make the leap to shows like The Sopranos or Deadwood or even True Blood. All of those shows have a faint whiff of adult-themed quality, where the nudity and violence service the story, man.
So if you were going to think of a series meant to perfectly exemplify Cinemax, what, exactly, would you think of? Honestly, you don’t need to take part in this thought experiment, because Strike Back so perfectly exemplifies the answer that it would be silly to try. Where HBO wants to be respected and admired, Cinemax just wants to fuck shit up, and that means greenlighting an action series that’s never subtle about pushing your buttons in just the right ways. In every episode, you’re going to see somebody get their brains blown out and exciting gunfights. In every episode, you’re going to see some naked breasts. You’re going to see tough guys acting tough. You’re going to see classic action movie setups like secret missions and hostage crises. You’re going to see double-crosses and reversals and bad guys who reveal themselves at the last possible moment. There’s no contemplation of the meaning of life or down-time. This is just straightforward, meat-and-potatoes action TV.
The bulk of Strike Back follows British Sgt. Michael Stonebridge (played by Phillip Winchester, of Crusoe, Camelot, and a recurring role in Fringe, among other things) and American former military man Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton, probably best known for his work in indie film Animal Kingdom). The two form an odd couple that anyone who’s ever seen an action movie can predict in their sleep. Stonebridge is the straitlaced, do-everything-as-you’re-told guy out of the two, with the monogamous lifestyle, deference to authority, and desire to do the right thing and catch the bad guys that mark him as a hero for our troubled times. Scott is much more of a loose cannon, largely unable to keep it in his pants when he sees a beautiful woman and fond of just making shit up as he goes along, but he gets results, dammit. (What these two archetypes say about how the creative team behind the series sees the nations the two are from is anybody’s guess.) The two are the lone good cops remaining in a world gone to shit, tracking down terrorists and other international criminals via any means necessary.
Tonight’s premiere opens with Stonebridge on the trail of a man kidnapped by terrorists named Porter. Since this is a 24-inspired show and since it’s taking place in our conspiracy-obsessed world, whatever happened to Porter is part, of course, of a larger story, but that’s one of the things that gives the show such pleasure. The plotting—by X-Files alumnus Frank Spotnitz from the book by Chris Ryan, which inspired a 2009 British miniseries—is nicely twisty, and every episode ends with a big shock or two. The reveals about the true nature of the conspiracy Porter ended up caught up in are well made, and the show never feels like the master plot is flagging. Curiously, it manages to do this even in later episodes, which have basically nothing to do with the master plot, perhaps because the overall pacing of individual episodes has some of the go-for-broke excitement of 24 and macho action movies at their best.
There are, of course, weaknesses with the whole proposition. The whole thing falls into jingoistic chest-thumping here and there, often seeming less complicated than the real world can be and more a simple fantasy of the guys with the quickest trigger fingers doing the best work geopolitically. (Again, this is in keeping with the whole genre, so it’s hard to hold it against the show too much.) The supporting cast beyond Stonebridge and Scott is barely fleshed out, with nearly everyone in it falling into a quickly defined archetype (or two), and that proves more problematic. Similarly, the story occasionally gets bogged down in some fairly ludicrous leaps of logic. There’s a conclusion drawn about the phrase “fucking pricks” in tonight’s episode that seems… a bit of a stretch, to be charitable. And if the show has a most significant failing, it’s that it doesn’t really attempt to be anything more than what it already is. Even 24 wanted to be an aggressive defense of neo-conservative methods for fighting the War on Terror. This is pretty much just guys shooting other guys, stuff blowing up, and women taking off their tops. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when watching four episodes in rapid succession, it can get a little repetitive.
But very little of that matters when you’re in the midst of this thing. It moves like a rocket, and there’s plenty of gory, dirty fun to be had. Winchester and Stapleton make a good team and bounce off of each other enjoyably, and later episodes—which leave behind the spine of the book and miniseries, presumably, given that they turn into “mission of the week” things—prove surprisingly unformulaic. To a degree, you know everything that’s going to happen here, but you never quite know how or when, and that keeps things feeling refreshingly off-kilter. And it helps that the look of the show is so strikingly cinematic, making great use of South African locations to appear more movie-like than most other TV shows in this genre.
Strike Back seems unlikely to be the show that pushes Cinemax to the glorified levels its older brother network has reached. Hell, it seems unlikely to push the network to the level of praise that 24 reached when that show was in its prime. But as an homage to that earlier program and the action movies that inspired it, it’s a very enjoyable time-waster, a show that offers plenty of bang for the buck, along with all the head shots, explosions, and naked ladies the channel it’s airing on would seem to suggest.