From the moment I started writing about the Cinemax action drama “Strike Back,” which wrapped perhaps its best season so far last week, I’ve been hearing from fans of the show’s first, British-only season. To a man (or woman), they insist that as much as they enjoy the current incarnation – a well-assembled, well-oiled machine of gunfights, car chases, banter and unapologetic sex – they prefer the show that “Strike Back” started as, before Cinemax teamed up with Sky, and original leading man Richard Armitage was replaced by new co-stars Philip Winchester and Sullivan Stapleton.
That’s often the way it is with adaptations – and that’s essentially what the co-produced version of “Strike Back” is – where fans inevitably prefer the book to the movie, the foreign film to the American remake, the kitschy ’60s original to the gritty 21st century reimagining. Often, the original version is better, but I think sometimes it’s just about whatever you have in your head first.
And because my first exposure to the idea of “Strike Back” came two summers ago with the first Winchester/Stapleton episode, I was awfully curious to see how I responded to the six-episode Armitage season, which Cinemax is finally airing starting tonight at 10, under the title “Strike Back: Origins.” The British fans missed the parts of the Armitage show that got tossed aside when he left to film “The Hobbit” trilogy and the show started over from scratch. So would I (and other people who came to the show with its current incarnation) miss the parts that weren’t there when Armitage was the man with the gun?
Now, there are certain elements that have continued no matter the stars or production team. There’s the title, and the set-up of Section 20, a covert British military unit responding to terrorist threats around the globe. There’s the basic structure of each season, which is broken up into two-episode chunks with their own standalone adventures that tie into a larger story thread for the year as a whole. There is action, and a great deal of empathy for the people and geopolitical situations in the hot spots where the Section 20 guys are sent, and attention paid to the physical and emotional toll of this kind of special forces work.
But a lot is different. “Strike Back: Cinemax” is a buddy show, filled with light-hearted banter between Winchester and Stapleton, almost as much about their slow-burning friendship as about the missions they go on. “Strike Back: Origins” has a very recognizable co-star in Andrew Lincoln (Rick from “The Walking Dead”) as the head of Section 20, but he’s the boss and sometimes adversary of Armitage’s John Porter, not his pal. This is a solo vehicle for Armitage, who has to work a lot in silence, and is playing a character far more psychologically damaged than either of his successors. “Origins” opens on the eve of the Iraq invasion, with Porter and Lincoln’s Hugh Collinson on a mission that goes badly awry and destroys Porter’s career, reputation and personal life. When he eventually wheedles his way into Section 20 in the present day, his co-workers are understandably suspicious of him, and it’s clear throughout that his mind and heart never fully left that bloody spot in Iraq.
Because Porter is a man alone (though inevitably he gets paired with a local whose problems parallel his own), and because he’s in the midst of so much inner turmoil, “Origins” is by design a darker show than what followed. “Strike Back: Australian Guy Playing American” certainly has its black moments, like Winchester’s arc throughout the second American season, but the show’s also not shy about putting Stapleton forward for a wisecrack or a naked romp with an attractive female guest star. Porter isn’t a monk, but “Origins” cuts discreetly away before anything raunchy happens; Skinemax, this is not.
Having seen all 30 episodes of “Strike Back: We Might Just End An Episode With A Laughing Freeze Frame” and all six of “Strike Back: Origins,” it’s clear each version has distinct strengths and weaknesses. “Origins” is the more psychologically complex show, and feels slightly more realistic, even though Porter escapes certain death on numerous occasions. But “Strike Back: Nudity Clauses Are a Must” has a bigger scope and much stronger action sequences (I laughed with delight at a stunt in last week’s episode where our heroes had to escape a moving van in heavy traffic), and though parts of it are cheesier than the Armitage version, the chemistry between Winchester and Stapleton is undeniable and a large part of the show’s appeal now.
I wonder what this incarnation of “Strike Back” would be like if Armitage hadn’t been cast as the lead dwarf. Would the new “Strike Back” more closely resemble the old, only with bigger action than before? Or would Porter have been assigned a partner he would slowly and begrudgingly come to like?
But what reality gave us was two slightly different flavors of the same formula. Ultimately, I prefer the taste of the one I sampled first, but I can absolutely see the appeal of the original recipe.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com
NOTE: Though the ultimate fate of John Porter is known to viewers of the Cinemax version, we’re going to stick to the usual spoiler rules for the blog, which say that anything that hasn’t aired in America should not be discussed in any real detail. So keep any non-opinion discussion of the Armitage episodes as vague as possible. Thanks.