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TV Tonight: Banshee

The hyperbloody new Cinemax drama is not a terrible show. At times it can be entertaining. But at best it's terribly, entertainingly superfluous.

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In the pilot of Banshee, our protagonist has just gotten out from a long stint in prison, bangs a random bartenderess, then goes to see an old friend about his next move: he wants to look up his old lover and partner in crime, with whom he pulled the heist that put him away. The friend, a transvestite named Job (Hoon Lee), is aghast: “You’ve got the whole world in front of you, and you’re going to the one place you absolutely should not go.”

That’s similar to what I felt when I watched Banshee (Cinemax, Fridays). Cable TV has the world in front of it, endless possibilities for telling new stories about different kinds of experience. Yet here it is going back to an old pattern: a ludicrously violent, familiarly dark, stylistically sex-soaked drama about a brooding antihero who gets numerous excuses to separate bad guys from their teeth and miscellaneous women from their clothes. Banshee’s not a terrible show. At times it can be entertaining. But at best it’s terribly, entertainingly superfluous.

Back to the premise: our protagonist (Antony Starr)–he has a name but won’t be using it for long–tracks his ex down to the town of Banshee, Penn., in Amish country. His first night in town he visits a bar where he meets (what a coincidence!) the town’s sheriff, who (what a coincidence!) just got into town that day himself and (what a coincidence!) immediately gets himself killed in an attempted robbery at the bar. Our guy finds himself surrounded by dead bodies and opportunity: to take the identity of the sheriff, Lucas Hood, who (what a coincidence!) fortunately appears to have hardly any family or friends, a Facebook page or any other identifying track record of any kind.

So our guy is now the new sheriff in town. (It’s The Riches, with more murders.) He must quickly get up to speed. Lucas, he learns, was brought in from out of town because his predecessors were all in the pocket of Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), local business leader and crime boss. Oh, and his old gal-pal in crime? She’s now living in town under the name Carrie (Ivana Milicevic), with a family and husband, who happens to be the district attorney. Overnight, Lucas finds himself keeping order in what is apparently the bloodiest town in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, all while mob thugs from New York are trying to hunt him down.

Banshee comes to us from Alan Ball, who created the dark family drama Six Feet Under for HBO, but with True Blood showed off a sexy, pulp, hypersanguinous sensibility that is probably a better fit for today’s skin-and-Cinemax. Don’t expect any SFU-style brooding and introspection here. Banshee is a big action-delivery machine, starting from a ludicrously summer-movie-like chase scene that ends with an overturned truck skidding Michael Bay–style across a Manhattan avenue. (Would that New York daytime traffic were ever fast enough for a truck to crash that dramatically!)

Like True Blood, Banshee is best when it embraces its outlandish story with a sense of humor. The show has fun with the notion of Banshee’s public officials finding that their new sheriff has the fighting skills of a special forces commando, and with Lucas’ new-guy-in-town status. As he does a ride-along with his resentful deputy (who had his eye on the sheriff job himself), they notice a gang of toughs harassing some Amish men. “They [the Amish] don’t want to hit back,” Lucas volunteers. “Oh, you’ve seen Witness,” the deputy deadpans, unimpressed. “That’s great.”

But the show often ends up so ostentatiously bloody and dark that it’s unintentionally funny. This is especially true of anything around Proctor, an estranged-Amish villain so cartoonishly evil that he cuts off a henchman’s finger and feeds it to his dog, so depraved that he has one of the prostitutes he employs service him while wearing an Amish woman’s bonnet and so warped that, as this act happens, we see that he has a full-back tattoo of Christ on the cross. (Banshee’s visuals are not exactly subtle. This is the kind of show where, when a guy beats the crap out of another guy in a slaughtehouse, the camera shoots it over a table of bloody meat cuts, just to add atmosphere.)

For all that, Starr is gloweringly watchable as Lucas, and The Wire’s Frankie Faison has a compelling side role as the former boxer and bartender who becomes Lucas’ closest thing to an ally in treacherous Banshee. But it’s hard to find too many great moments amid all the cliched pay-cable gore, to find real surprises amid the loose teeth and detached digits. If you’re going to make a drama about an underworld criminal laying down the law in Amish country, there shouldn’t be such a feeling that we’ve all passed through this town before.