The revival of Strike Back probably won’t come as much of a surprise to those who’ve watched the series before. It has already undergone a similar cast upheaval when the somber and conspiratorial first season, starring Richard Armitage and Andrew Lincoln, was transformed into the Lethal Weapon-like buddy antics of Stonebridge and Scott (played for four seasons by Philip Winchester and Sullivan Stapleton, respectively). The transition was a success, and it became a gateway for Cinemax to move into more original programming — albeit in conjunction with Sky One, in this instance. The series was marked by its globe-hopping story lines and ability to deliver sustained action sequences that were some of the best offered anywhere on television. But when the series called it quits after season 4 (or season 5 in the U.K.) it didn’t take long before there were rumblings of bringing the series back, to see if lightning really could strike twice.
Whereas the first Stonebridge/Scott season of Strike Back felt like a complete overhaul of the series, one that put as much of an emphasis on the personalities and sometimes contentious relationship of its two new characters as it did on the militaristic action, this new season doesn’t have to go to such lengths. It’s much more of a plug and play type scenario, where the production merely has to plug new characters into the plot and they’re ready to play. The series brings on board charismatic actors like Warren Brown (Luther), Daniel MacPherson (A Wrinkle in Time), Roxanne McKee (Game of Thrones), and Alin Sumarwata (Jack Irish), as the new members of the legendary Section 20. It also introduces Nina Sosanya (You Me and the Apocalypse) and Phil Dunster (Murder on the Orient Express), as Col. Adeena Donovan and LCpl. Will Jensen. And although the series wastes no time getting these new characters to play soldier and fall in with the tried-and-true Strike Back formula, don’t be surprised if it takes a little longer than expected to warm up to this new crew or them to each other.
A certain period of adjustment is to be expected, and the issue is certainly compounded by the fact that the core Section 20 team has now doubled. But that’s a mark in the plus column for the series, as Sumarwata’s LCpl. Gracie Novin and McKee’s Captain Natalie Reynolds make for welcome additions to the team, bringing more female representation and altering the testosterone-fueled formula from the previous seasons. At one point Novin even makes a pointed reference at that exact change while simultaneously putting an end to Sergeant Thomas ‘Mac’ McAllister (Brown) and Sergeant Samuel Wyatt (MacPherson) bickering with one another.
The series seems readily aware the burden that comes with introducing new characters and the need to not only see them gel as a team, but also how necessary it is for them to learn to do so. There’s an urge while watching to want Strike Back to immediately resurrect the Stonebridge and Scott dynamic, which is compounded by how readily apparent it is that Mac and Wyatt could easily resurrect the same sort of partnership. Mac is very much the soldier’s soldier that Stonebridge was, while Wyatt is the roguish, bearded American who’s never met a woman he didn’t wind up in bed with five minutes later. The similarities don’t end there, as MacPherson, like Stapleton, is from Australia, but has been tasked with playing an American, and manages to do so convincingly.
Much of the first hour, then, is caught between assuring viewers that Strike Back is still Strike Back, while also tending to the necessary business of getting to know the new crew. Unsurprisingly, the emphasis is placed on Mac and Wyatt, both of whom get something close to individual backstories, while the audience is more or less left wondering about Gracie and Captain Reynolds. Mac’s story essentially sets the plot in motion, as his first team is killed by a terrorist named Omair Idrisi who soon joins his fanatical English-born wife Jane Lowry, as the two attempt to purchase surface to air missiles from an arms dealer named Morgan Ives. Wyatt, meanwhile, gets a similarly specific introduction, as he’s captured working undercover and winds up on loan to Section 20 from the U.S after Mac stages a rescue.
There is more than a little bit of Stonebridge and Scott in both Mac and Wyatt, and while the similarities help ease the transition to a new team, it would have been nice to see the series make more of an effort to distinguish the characters from the outset. That goes double for the women, as neither are given much of anything resembling a backstory, an issue that unfortunately goes unresolved several episodes in to the new season. This isn’t to say there needs to be a Lost-style flashback for each new character, but even the most perfunctory of personal histories is preferred to nothing at all.
All that is to say, the new Strike Back still has some work to do with regard to building its new team. The series seems to be in a strange position where it’s a little shy about introducing too many radically new elements too quickly, at the risk of alienating its core audience who are back for more military action and, presumably, the camaraderie between the soldiers in the field. To a certain extent, the series is being smart about parceling out some of those changes more gradually. At the same time, however, it’s time for other familiar elements from the series to make similar steps toward change, like the depiction of the villains. The series does make significant moves in that regard, putting Jane Lowry at the top of the Big Bad list, and pitting Section 20 against a group of white nationalists in episodes 3 and 4.
Ultimately, the return of Strike Back is a mixed bag where certain familiar elements almost seem in opposition to everything new that is being introduced. The good news is the series gets more confident as the new season progresses, and it becomes clear the process of becoming the new Section 20 is the real story arc this time around. Though hiccups and growing pains are evident on the screen, the series still knows how to deliver terrific action sequences and that should be enough to keep longtime fans around as this latest iteration figures itself out.
Strike Back continues next Friday @10pm on Cinemax.