Review: Cinemax’s ‘Strike Back’ returns, still ready for action

Some TV shows are rapidly evolving organisms. You come back for a new season to find new characters, a new workplace, maybe even a wildly different tone. That can be exciting – though if done wrong, it can strip away what the audience liked in the first place.

Some TV shows offer you roughly the same thing week after week, season after season. There’s a danger in that, too, as stagnation can lead to boredom. But there are certain shows that do what they do so well that evolution seems to be beside the point. One of those is Cinemax’s “Strike Back,” which begins a new season tonight at 10, doing the same things it usually does(*), but with such a high level of execution and glee that I care not a whit about the formulaic nature of it all. A show that kicks this much ass doesn’t especially need to stretch.

(*) This is the point at which I note that the “Strike Back” title is entering its fourth season, while the Cinemax/Sky co-produced incarnation of it is only entering its third. I haven’t seen the first season, which starred Richard Armitage and Andrew Lincoln, and therefore can’t speak to how much it resembles the Cinemax show. 

Though the new season brings in a few new faces – Robson Green as a new commanding officer, a wonderfully hammy Dougray Scott as a brutal mercenary, Zubin Varla as a terrorist financier – the core remains the same: Philip Winchester and Sullivan Stapleton as Michael Stonebridge and Damien Scott, a pair of special forces soldiers (Stonebridge is English, Scott American) working for the UK’s Section 20, traveling to global hot spots and being placed in situations where they are absurdly outgunned, yet find ways to survive thanks to their superior training and, more often than not, luck.

It’s basically the same show as last year – Rhona Mitra even returns as the duo’s direct superior, even though the previous season ended with the suggestion her character had been fired – so I have little to say that I didn’t write a year ago. The chemistry between Winchester and Stapleton is a treat, the action scenes remain brutal and thrilling and fun, and the show transcends simple guilty pleasure status by paying enough attention to the emotional toll this kind of work takes on the people who do it. It’s a blast to watch Stonebridge commandeer an enemy boat single-handed – when an observer asks what his partner’s about to do, Scott suggests, “Something brave or something stupid. Can’t tell yet.” – but the show also takes their problems, and the problems of the people in the various hotspots they’re dropped into, seriously. Through the four episodes I’ve seen (and in the fourth episode in particular) it lives up to its status as a show that’s far better than it needs to be.

At one point in tonight’s premiere (in the scene excerpted above, in fact), Scott complains about the sameness of their routine, “World’s just gonna keep on turning. Some asshole is just gonna play his hand. We’re in the badass hombre-making business, buddy. Fuckin’ job creators!” 

He may tire of things working out the same way each year. For now, though, I’m perfectly happy to watch “Strike Back” be “Strike Back.” 

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at