“Banshee,” the Cinemax crime drama that wraps up its first season tonight at 10, is among the dumbest, most ridiculous, lurid, disgusting shows on all of television.
That is also an enormous part of its charm.
I wasn’t crazy about “Banshee” when it premiered back in January. The premise – a recently-released ex-con (Antony Starr) impersonates the new sheriff of a small Pennsylvania town after the man is murdered before he can assume his office – was absurd, but had potential in a classic pulp fiction sense. The problem was that Starr seemed like a blank to me, and other parts of the show – an Amish-born crimelord (Ulrich Thomsen), a police station based in an abandoned Cadillac dealership – felt like creators David Schickler and Jonathan Tropper were trying too hard to be pile on the weirdness for its own sake.
As it turns out, they weren’t trying nearly as hard in the first couple of episodes as they would over the course of this 10-episode season. “Banshee” got crazier and sillier – and much, much more violent – as it went along, and its excesses eventually reached the level the premise deserved. It became great mindless fun, and Starr became much more interesting when he got more to do besides squinting mysteriously while his deputies wondered what kind of lunatic they were working for.
The commitment to excess has been especially notable in the fight scenes, with most episodes featuring at least one drawn-out set piece remarkable for both its length and sheer brutality. A fight between our fake Sheriff Hood and a visiting mixed martial arts champ in the third episode went on so long, and got so rough, I began wondering if they were trying to break a record.
That fight in and of itself bought the show several more episodes worth of rope from me, and the series kept upping the deranged, bloody stakes, all the way through tonight’s finale, where Hood and his allies – including his deputies, ex-lover Anna (Ivana Milicevic) and partners in crime Job (Hoon Lee) and Sugar (Frankie Faison) – all have to deal with the arrival of Anna’s powerful, ruthless gangster father Rabbit (Ben Cross, devouring every last millimeter of scenery with a smile). There’s a shootout where one of the deputies does something so outlandish that the only proper response was laughter – which, I suspect, is exactly the response the creative team was aiming for.
“Strike Back,” the international co-production that began Cinemax’s push into original scripted dramas, is a deeper, more thoughtful piece of work (while still supplying all the guns, ammo and sex scenes required by the channel’s brand), where “Banshee” is more of a pure guilty pleasure. But the ratio of pleasure to guilt has been rising all season, and I’m glad Cinemax already ordered another.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org