As a drama, “Banshee” is preposterous. It is ludicrous. It regularly defies laws of both plausibility and physics, and there's usually at least one moment per episode where I have to pause the action because I can't stop laughing at how ridiculous it all is.
And that is why I've come to love it.
“Banshee” is a show that should have no business working at all, let alone returning for an incredibly strong third season Friday night at 10 on Cinemax(*). At first glance, the premise – ex-con assumes the identity of a small-town Pennsylvania sheriff – feels extremely limited, like something better-suited to a straight-to-Netflix movie than an ongoing cable drama, even on HBO's pulpier sister channel. The amount of mayhem visited on this small burg in the middle of Amish country, and the colorful nature of the people perpetrating said mayhem, makes the place often seem a closer approximation of Gotham City than the show airing Monday nights on FOX.
(*) Next Wednesday night in LA, I'll be hosting a screening of the season's second episode, followed by a Q&A with stars Antony Starr and Ivana Milicevic, co-creator Jonathan Tropper and perhaps some other special guests. Click here to RSVP; should be a fun night, and all attendees will get an exclusive, original “Banshee” t-shirt.
But “Banshee” works because of its excesses – and also because it knows when it needs to be spare instead.
The premise of the show is thin and silly, but that can work so long as everyone involved is aware of that. That extends not just to the creative team, who have surrounded the fake Sheriff Lucas Hood (Antony Starr) with a cast of allies and enemies so colorful that we are never for a moment supposed to wonder about the plausibility of it all, but to the characters themselves. To a man (or woman), everyone who happens to learn Hood's secret is baffled that he would have tried it in the first place – even after learning that Banshee is the new home of his ex-lover and partner in crime Carrie (Ivana Milicevic) – and that he's maintained the charade long after things with Carrie failed to work out. Because almost everyone's in on the joke at the heart of the series – even the people who don't know who the sheriff really isn't know there is something seriously wrong about the man – the story can proceed in any direction it likes and feel like it makes sense in the context of “Banshee.”
Sometimes, that direction can be one of insane ultra-violence, often perpetrated by characters who are a cape and cowl short of appearing in a comic book – and, in the case of transvestite hacker and all-around badass Job (Hoon Lee), the cape may already be there. Other than Job and shunned Amish crime boss Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), I wasn't sold on most of “Banshee” when it first debuted, and was on the verge of writing off the series when I got to the climax of the third episode, where Hood picks a fight with an MMA champ who raped a local woman. Their brawl was so long and wince-inducingly brutal – in the style of the famous Keith David/Rowdy Roddy Piper fight from “They Live,” only with more biting and broken bones – that I decided to stick around a little to see if “Banshee” could offer me other spectacles I wasn't getting elsewhere, and the show delivered. The fight and other action scenes have only gotten more impressive (and graphic), and the third season seems even more committed to that nasty aesthetic than the first two. There's a fight in the upcoming third episode that had me alternately whooping and hiding my eyes, and the arc of the season involves the return of Native American thug Chayton Littlestone (Geno Segers), who simultaneously goes to war with Hood, Proctor, and even the U.S. military, leading to a bow-and-arrow versus tank battle in the premiere that is just splendid. Segers carries himself like the Rock and Khal Drogo somehow had a baby together who was fed nothing but HGH in utero, and it's good to have him in a more prominent role this year.
At the same time, the creative team understands that if “Banshee” was just broken bones, trick shots, and other craziness, it would burn itself out quickly. There are more down-to-earth characters on both sides of the law, whether Hood's puzzled deputies Brock (Matt Servitto) and Siobhan (Trieste Kelly Dunn) or his landlord and frequent criminal collaborator Sugar (Frankie Faison), and the relationships between the characters are presented in thoughtful, artful ways. One of the second season's best episodes saw Hood taking Carrie to the house he had once planed for them to live in in, with most of their time together presented in an elliptical fashion, scenes edited together to suggest different realities, or timelines, or simply dreams versus reality. That it also had room for the two of them to crawl through a wheat field to take out a sniper who was trying to kill them was a reminder of what kind of show “Banshee” is at its core, but that it's willing to experiment with its visual and narrative style even as it's kicking ass and taking names is commendable.
I've seen six of the new season's 10 episodes, each of them offering me some kind of visual or stunt or other flourish that I hadn't seen in quite that way before, and bringing in more interesting actors and characters (including Denis O'Hare as the latest FBI agent to look into the mystery that is “Lucas Hood”) to play in this strange, fun, dangerous sandbox. There will probably come a time when the preservation of Hood's secret will become too convoluted for even a show this elastic, and maybe even one where the stunt team will run out of new ways to show people injuring one another.
For now, though, I'm happy to let “Banshee” keep on pummeling me and anyone else lucky/foolish enough to cross its border.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org