As the third original series Cinemax has deemed fit to grace its airwaves, Banshee is also something of a change of pace, marking a shift from expansive (and expensive) international settings in favor of a more homegrown feel with marketing tied directly to the name of True Blood creator Alan Ball.
While any tenuous connection to HBO's campy vamp saga might send some viewers heading as far away from Banshee's rural Pennsylvania setting as possible, it's fairly clear from the onset that while they may be related, the two programs don't really have much in common. In fact, the same can be said in regard to Cinemax's two other original programs.
One thing that might surprise those who haven't yet tuned in to the first two seasons of Strike Back or the recently completed first season of Hunted – from X-Files producer Frank Spotnitz – is that both programs, while adhering to the burlier necessities of Cinemax's target audience, are actually a pair of entertaining, well-produced programs that are certainly worth tuning in for. So, in some sense, Banshee is entering established territory, and after seeing the pilot episode, it's clear that (for better or worse) this is a completely different kind of animal.
Instead of the never-say-die, run-and-gun machismo of Strike Back, or the labyrinthine plotline of Spotnitz' Hunted, Banshee favors a darker, more pulpy style of storytelling that, despite the beginning of several key mysteries, seems to favor a more straightforward approach - in terms of its characters, at any rate.
The main narrative, from co-creators David Schickler and novelist Jonathan Troppler (One Last Thing Before I Go, Everything Changes), revolves around a briefly nameless ex-convict played by Antony Starr who, after being released from a lengthy stint in prison, heads off in search of his old partner/love interest and his share of the loot from the job that got him pinched. His search lands him in the town with which the series shares its name. Before too long, the man, along with a local barkeep and former boxing champ named Sugar Bates (Frankie Faison, The Wire), is embroiled in a shootout that claims the lives of two thugs belonging to local crime lord Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen, Fringe) and the town's soon-to-be new sheriff, Lucas Hood.
As it turns out, Proctor's influence in Banshee is so great that the town's incredibly young mayor hired a new lawman from the other side of the country, sight unseen, so as to limit the possibility of corruption. Once Starr's character discovers this information, he immediately assumes Hood's identity and, with that, it would seem the series is off and running.
Early on, it's clear that Banshee is content to play within the well-trodden confines this sort of narrative works in. For the most part, all the familiar tropes are in place. Hood's ex-partner, played by Ivana Milicevic (Le Chiffre's girlfriend in Casino Royale), is also operating under an assumed identity. She's now Carrie Hopewell, a housewife with two kids, who just so happens to be married to Banshee's D.A., Gordon Hopewell (Rus Blackwell, Ten). There's also the larger mystery of the job that landed our main character in prison, and, apparently, has a very dangerous individual by the name of Mr. Rabbit (Ben Cross) sending a vaguely Eastern European-looking hitman to cause all sorts of commotion in an effort to eradicate the thief.
That is, without a doubt, a lot of heavy lifting for a pilot episode to have to undertake, and for the most part, Banshee manages to get all the important plot aspects across – which means that, with any luck, there'll be more time to discover what it is that's making these characters tick as the series progresses. Right now, the pilot has merely established a dark tone and a fairly dense plot. This certainly isn't a bad thing, especially if the audience is intrigued by what they've seen so far. Chances are, between the brief cinematic rush of the bus sequence, the pulpy excess of the fight scenes and the gratuitous glimpses of pay cable's X-factor, there'll be something in this first hour to at least keep the target audience interested.
The trouble is, with all the attention given to the plot, there never really feels as though any proper development is granted any of the characters. Certainly, there is a superficial knowledge of who these people are – which is really what should be expected of a pilot episode – but beyond simply serving the narrative, their motivations feel somewhat scant and overly typical. A career criminal assuming the identity of a slain lawman in a town seemingly overrun by the corruption of an crime lord with ties to the Amish community is intriguing stuff, but, so far, there is little indication that that move is anything more than a clever set up.
While the mystery of Hood's motivations – given the conflict between his past and newfound position – definitely keeps Banshee intriguing, it might have served the series better had it offered up a clearer sense of how the tricky morality of its character's situation was meant to be perceived. As we've seen in high quality dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, there's a rich story to be mined from the simple concept of assuming another identity – or in the remaking one's self. Right now, we are left unsure of just what our nameless protagonist's intentions are. We don't need the curtain pulled back entirely, but some inkling that he is either intent on pursuing his ex-lover, or merely interested in hiding from Mr. Rabbit, would be appreciated. Additionally, there is the larger question of how he plans to use his position as sheriff. Is it for nefarious means, or does being on the other side of the law hold some unforeseen attraction to him?
Mystery is undoubtedly a powerful narrative tool, but the portions Banshee leaves blank may have served the story better, early on, had there been some indication as to what this new Lucas Hood was at least capable of. Right now, all we have are a few cursory examples of his fighting prowess and some idea of his underworld connections.
Still, as somewhat convoluted as the plot feels right now, there's plenty of opportunity to be had. The questions surrounding Hood's purpose; the stranglehold Proctor has over the town; and the ominous threat of Mr. Rabbit and his henchmen are all plusses that will likely work well in contrast to the more contrived aspects that the series has put in place. Watching the first hour of Banshee, you get the feeling that due to the sheer weight of the initial setup, it's going to take some time before things really get moving. If the series can better establish the objective of the characters in the next few episodes, then this may prove to be another fun ride for Cinemax.
Banshee airs Friday nights @10pm on Cinemax. Check out a preview for the next episode below: