Long celebrated as the premium cable destination for soft-core pornography and third-rate Marc Singer movies (which is perhaps redundant), Cinemax has taken steps in recent years to shed its "Skinemax" past by following its more accomplished brethren like Showtime and parent company HBO into the realm of original programming. Previous attempts included the canceled-after-one-season spy drama Hunted and the recently concluded Strike Back, both of which were produced by the network in conjunction with other entities (the BBC and Sky, respectively). Then, in 2013, Cinemax unleashed its first homegrown property, produced by True Blood's Alan Ball: Banshee.
Released with little fanfare and starring almost no one you've ever heard of (the most famous recurring cast member is Frankie "Commissioner Burrell" Faison), Banshee tells the story of "Lucas Hood" (Antony Starr), an ex-con with a Mysterious Past who assumes the identity of the murdered and not-yet-sworn-in sheriff of the small Pennsylvania town of Banshee. Hood is searching for his ex-girlfriend/accomplice Carrie (Ivana Milicevic), real name Anastasia, the daughter of NYC Ukrainian mobster Igor "Rabbit" Rabitov (Ben Cross). Along the way, he runs afoul of local ex-Amish crime boss Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), who renounced his humble upbringing to pursue more earthly pleasures. Meanwhile, transvestite hacker Job (Hoon Lee), another former associate of Hood's, is forced by Rabbit and company to flee New York and join Hood in his new Pennsylvania paradise.
This all happens in the first episode.
Banshee benefits from several serendipitous elements. The first is an almost gleeful insistence by creators Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler to overtop themselves each successive season. Russian gangsters too trite for you? How about reformed members of the Aryan Brotherhood? Or Native American terrorists? Or crack-smoking FBI agents? Hell, the most recent primary antagonist is a Satanist serial killer, and he's almost refreshing in his relative banality.
The second comes from not having to follow too closely in its parent's footsteps. HBO had already paved the way for highbrow television with the likes of The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood, and still mostly stays on the serious side of the fence. This freed Cinemax to fully open the batshit throttles, as Tropper and company go to extremes of kink and gore Tony Soprano never imagined. This can make for some challenging viewing, admittedly, but who among us hasn't already seen a few televised neck snaps?
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Incidentally, Banshee's adherence to violence also helped set the stage for similarly unpleasant tableaux in Cinemax's latest and more pedigreed (i.e., directed by Steven Soderbergh) original series, The Knick.
Which brings us to the time slot. Nine p.m. (Central) on a Friday might seem like a death sentence for any show associated with NBC's "TGIF," but it's actually perfect for Banshee. Think about how you feel at the end of the workweek: You've endured another 40 hours of underpaid humiliation and dealing with your ungrateful children. By 9 p.m., the kids have (hopefully) finally quit mouthing off and are safely abed (or at least doped up on generic Benadryl) and your next sentence to Cubermax is a blissful 48 hours away. What better time to crack a brew (or four) and settle in to watch a former soccer mom take a flamethrower to a drug lab? You've earned it, dammit.
You'll even have a hard time picking a favorite character. Is it Hood? Smoothly brutal Kai Proctor? Renaissance female role model Ana? For a long time, mine was Job, that exemplar of bitchy computer expertise, but lately I've been more of a fan of Kurt Bunker (Tom Pelphrey), the former skinhead turned Banshee sheriff's deputy. Or "Nazi Cop," as I call him. In fact, it's probably easier to just refer to each character by an abbreviated title rather than go through the *ordeal* of Googling the actor's name. For example, "Nazi Cop," or "Indian Colossus," or "Albino Prison Rapist."
The fourth — and final — season kicked off in April and wraps up later this month. Banshee's ratings were never going to vault it into Game of Thrones (or even Hollywood Game Night) territory, but it's developed something of a cult following. And honestly, the lack of a more vocal online fanbase means it's easy to get caught up On Demand without spoilers dancing around in your subconscious like so many Red Weddings. A weird bouillabaisse of camp, sex and violence, Banshee was a unique offering in a realm stuffed with Kardashians and acronymic procedurals. Bless its dismembering, self-immolating heart, but it will be missed.