When Cinemax decided to follow big brother HBO into the scripted drama business, it kept things safe and simple with “Strike Back.” It was a continuation of a pre-existing show from the U.K. (albeit one where most of the cast and producers were replaced for the Cinemax version), a mix of sex and violence that fit perfectly with what people subscribe to the channel for, and its ambitions are small and easily attainable.
“Strike Back” has turned out to be a real pleasure, and now Cinemax has aimed higher with its second drama, “Hunted” (it premieres Friday night at 10).It’s a wholly original series, and while there’s still action and nudity, the storytelling is far more complex. The training wheels are off now, and the result is a show that wobbles far more frequently than its predecessor, but one that can get into a groove that demonstrates the value of risk-taking.
“Hunted” was created by Frank Spotnitz, one of the key producers on “The X-Files,” as well as the writer of several early episodes of the Cinemax incarnation of “Strike Back.” He’s again working in a Brit-centric field of international intrigue, but the arena and the objectives are murkier.
Melissa George plays Sam Hunter(*), a British spy who works for a private company called Byzantium rather than the government, performing missions to aid wealthy corporate clients, working under the icy Rupert Keel (Stephen Dillane, one of several “Game of Thrones” actors in the cast), and alongside her lover Aidan Marsh (Adam Rayner) and American sniper Deacon Crane (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). After a mission in Tangier, Sam is attacked and left for dead. She goes underground for a year, trying to figure out who betrayed her – this is the kind of show where the heroine spends a lot of time pinning photos to a corkboard and connecting them with bits of string – before returning to Byzantium to get her revenge.
(*) Yes, the last name is a groaner (it reminds me of various comic book characters whose real names sound a lot like their superpowers), but fortunately, Sam spends much of the season working under the pseudonym Alex Kent, so just focus on that if you prefer.
Spotnitz structures “Hunted” like an onion, peeling back one layer after another after another. We’re simultaneously dealing with Sam’s quest for revenge, the mission Keel assigns her to, a cold war between Byzantium and the British government, another corporation with a keen interest in Sam, a mysterious assassin (Scott Handy) operating on his own agenda, and intermittent flashbacks to a trauma in Sam’s childhood that may be reverberating into the present.
It is a lot to keep track of, and if I’m being honest, within a couple of episodes I decided my mental forces would be best served focusing on Sam’s official assignment for Byzantium, which has her going undercover in the home of wiseguy-turned-industrialist Jack Turner (Patrick Malahide). The stakes and motivations of all the players are clear, where most of what’s going on in the rest of the series involves lies, conspiracies, startling twists and changes of allegiance, each of which can be individually fun but are perhaps overwhelming when put together like this.
That said, many of the stories come together well by the end of these eight episodes, and the ones that don’t clearly point the way towards a second season. And if the complex plot isn’t always the easiest to follow, it serves Melissa George very, very well.
George has been knocking around American television for 15-odd years now. (Her first role here was in a short-lived FOX fantasy series called “Roar,” starring a young Heath Ledger.) Sometimes, she’s memorable in an otherwise disposable show (“Thieves,” opposite John Stamos). Other times, she’s a bad fit, like her brief stint as a reckless “Grey’s Anatomy” intern, or as an unplayable, universally-hated character on “Alias.”
This is basically her shot to do “Alias,” and she’s much better-suited to play the heroine than a romantic obstacle/turncoat. The action scenes aren’t as elaborate as anything on “Strike Back,” but they’re brutal and efficient, and she’s absolutely convincing getting the better of much larger opponents. She models a variety of accents(**) and personas (“Alex Kent” is a shy American schoolteacher) and lets you see her mental gears spinning no matter what the situation is and what identity she’s using at the time.
(**) Her American accent is much better than Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s. He’s playing not only American, but a Southerner, and at times he seems preoccupied just trying to get the twang right.
As with the many conspiracies of “Alias,” I’m not always 100 percent clear on what’s happening in “Hunted,” but the atmosphere and suspense are terrific, and the leading lady is compelling enough that I want to see her triumph over whoever it is she’s ultimately supposed to be fighting.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org