'Banshee' Review: Sex, Violence, More Sex, More Violence, And Strong Writing

Cinemax continues its efforts to become a player in the original content game. They’ve got one hit, Strike Back, which has been renewed for a third season, and last year’s Hunted, a co-production with BBC-One from Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) that ended up being a nifty espionage series that got better over the course of its first season (a second season is up in the air; BBC-One dropped out, but Cinemax and Spotnitz are working to bring the series back in some form). Cinemax’s third stab is Banshee, which comes from executive producer Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood), and is set to premiere tonight.

Banshee stars New Zealander Anthony Starr as Lucas Hood. As the series opens, he’s just been released from prison. He’s also on the run from a mob boss, Mr. Rabbit (Ben Cross, Chariots of Fire, Sarek from J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek) for stealing from him before entering prison. The loot he stole, however, is purportedly in the hands of his ex-girlfriend, Carrie (Ivana Miličević), who assumed a new identity, moved to Banshee, married the district attorney, and had two children while Lucas was away in prison.

Lucas, in turn, assumes the identity of the new sheriff of Banshee (after the out-of-town sheriff-for-hire is killed before meeting anyone). Hood’s biggest challenge is trying to maintain authority in a town ran by a brutal mob boss (Ulrich Thomsen), who comes from an Amish community that makes up much of the population of Banshee. There’s also Lucas’ only friend, a bartender played by The Wire’s Frankie Faison. He and the ex-wife are the only people in Banshee who know Lucas’ real identity.

There’s a lot of balls up in the air in the pilot. Hood is on the run from one mob boss; trying to wrest control away from another; he’s also still in love with his ex-wife, and he’s a felon working as a sheriff, which — as you might imagine — means exchanging Miranda rights for a lot of ass-kicking and the gun work of early season Justified. There’s enough going on, in fact, to ignore the low-production values and the spotty performances long enough to get invested in the storylines.

Unlike Hunted, which featured espionage, deep-running storylines, and superior acting, Banshee is more of what you’d expect from a Cinemax series: There’s more violence, and a lot more sex. But the writing is surprisingly sharp, and the acting of Anthony Hood, Ben Cross, and Frankie Faison mostly counterbalances the more amateur performances from the rest of the cast (specifically, the Amish and the Pennsyltuckians). The second episode I saw was a huge letdown from the pilot, but that was mostly owed to miserable choices by the director (the pilot was directed by an Emmy-winning director of House, the second episode was not) and not the writing.

There’s definitely something promising bubbling beneath the already busy premise, and as the pulpy storylines come into sharper focus, it could make for a guilty — and maybe even compelling — Friday night series.

If you’re interested in the series, check out the trailer.

And for some weird reason, you can watch the entire pilot in GIF form over on Buzzfeed, although I wouldn’t recommend it. This GIF, however, could prove useful.