I like to say of “Strike Back” that the show is better than it needs to be. Given the Cinemax brand, all it really had to offer was guns and breasts and it was going to get some kind of audience, but the show goes a lot deeper than that, and is executed on a much higher level than I might have expected. And though the channel’s second series, “Hunted,” had some plotting issues, it also had ambition and atmosphere and strong performances.
“Banshee,” on the other hand, feels exactly like what I pictured when I first heard that Cinemax was getting into the scripted drama game – and not just because its main character leaves prison and has sex with a naked woman within the pilot’s first 90 seconds. It’s pulp fiction, but hampered by its leading man’s limitations and some odd choices along the way.
“Banshee” (it debuts tonight at 10) is produced by Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under,” “True Blood”), but the creators are David Schickler and Jonathan Tropper. They’ve crafted the story of a hardcore criminal, played by New Zealand actor Antony Starr, who gets out of prison after a long stretch, goes in search of the money and woman he left behind, and winds up impersonating the new sheriff of a small Pennsylvania town after the cop is murdered in front of him before meeting any of the other citizens.
It’s a ridiculous idea – and the characters on the show who know that our man isn’t really Sheriff Lucas Hood continually remind him how dumb he’s being – but one that could probably work on a fun B-movie level if the actor had more charisma than Starr has to offer. Starr’s good-looking (and, like the “Strike Back” guys, frequently appears shirtless), but he’s also a blank. By design, he doesn’t speak much, and there doesn’t seem to be anything hiding behind his eyes as he pulls off this elaborate identity theft. There are good performances to the side, particularly by Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen as the local crime boss and Frankie Faison as the retired boxer who keeps Hood’s secret, but they mainly make me wish the series was somehow about them and not the fake Lucas Hood.
Perhaps to compensate for Starr, the show tries very hard to be colorful. Sometimes, these flourishes work, like Hood’s best ally being a transgendered hairstylist/hacker named Job (played well by Hoon Lee). More often than that, though, the show feels too quirky by half, like the sheriff’s department operating out of a defunct Cadillac dealership.
The overheated look of Amish country in summer helps make “Banshee” stand out a little. But overall, this represents a creative step back for Cinemax. Once upon a time, it would have been exactly as good as it needed to be, but the bar’s been raised.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org