Well tonight is the end of HBO’s True Detective and Game of Thrones doesn’t return until April so I’ve been in panic mode. What the hell is going to keep me entertained as this horrible winter finally draws to a close? Well, I think I have my answer and it’s been flying under the radar at everyone’s favorite soft-core porn palace, Cinemax.
The show is called Banshee and up until this point I paid it no mind because, with a title like that, I assumed it was just another Twilight knock-off or similar super-natural garbage which studios have been churning out lately. This show is anything but that – It is straight genre action set in the modern day and it is fun. Banshee is the name of the fictitious town where the show is set and otherwise has no bearing on the series. I guess the creators just thought it sounded ominous.
To sum the show up quickly, I would say it is like a cross between Roadhouse and High Plains Drifter. The fictitious Banshee County is in rural Pennsylvania and under the control of a ruthless businessman by the name of Kai Proctor – much like the town of Jasper in Roadhouse and Ben Gazzara’s character Brad Wesley. The lead in Banshee, Lucas Hood, is an Eastwoodian outlaw who, unlike Swazye’s Dalton, has zero interest in “being nice” to anyone. He ends up as the town’s Sheriff due to a wacky chain of events not worth discussing. Not thinking too much about plausibility is essential to watching and enjoying this show. You can’t worry about how and why things are happening, you just need to revel in the glorious outcome. So simply accept the fact that a recently released convict can easily assume the identity of a small town sheriff, though it helps when you have the services of a transvestite computer hacking genius. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Again, don’t think about it too much because once our protagonist becomes sheriff, that’s when the fun begins.
I spent a lot of time debating if Banshee was “good” or not until I realized that was the wrong word for it. It’s not good in the traditional sense but it’s not the typical so-bad-its-good kitsch either. It feels like a Roger Corman production – where at any moment the girl-next-door could decide she needs to have sex right now or a random biker gang could start pillaging the town – but imagine if Corman was willing to spend money on cinematography and quality actors. True to what you’d expect from Cinemax, it’s loaded with violence and gratuitous sex, yet the production vales are a bit higher than your standard late night Skinemax fare. Some of the camera (or post production) tricks are a bit hammy but over all the show has a look similar to some of David Fincher’s work.
The keys are really the writing and acting. One of the creators of the show is best-selling author Jonathan Tropper (There is Where I Leave You, One Last Thing Before I Go) which I think helps it rise above TV hack. We’re not talking Shakespeare or anything but it has some snappy dialogue and character show-downs reminiscent of your favorite Tarentino moments. And lead actor Anthony Starr is highly game as anti-hero Sheriff Hood. He’s brooding and brusque and all smirking confidence without being too over-the-top. Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen is deliciously creepy as the wayward Amish villain Proctor; between him and Starr there is much tension created simply through cold hard stares. (Think Spaghetti Western) And you can never go wrong casting alums from HBO’s The Wire, like Frankie Faison who plays ex-prize fighter turned barkeep “Sugar” Bates. Wire fans will also enjoy a single episode story involving actor Michael Kostroff who you might remember as the sleazy drug lawyer Maury Levy.
While certainly not on the same level as True Detective or Game of Thrones, Banshee does have some of the same genes – Most notably a willingness to do whatever the hell the show feels like. It’s rare when TV shows catch me off guard but I loved when True Detective hit that crazy fourth episode because it meant anything could happen. Similarly, Banshee is an all-bets-are-off show where clearly the writers are willing to let their characters run wild. The villains – yes, villains, plural – are not just bad, they are evil and sadistic, capable of any cruelty. Even the “good guy” Sheriff Hood, while possessing a certain twisted sense of honor, is still a criminal at heart and thus not beholden to any code of conduct. The Cop Who Plays By His Own Rules is one of the most tired Hollywood tropes, but Lucas Hood is literally a renegade who has never even seen the rule book. The look of disbelief from the other characters as the Sheriff routinely beats the crap out of people feels genuine because as the viewer you share the sentiment. Heroes are not supposed to act this way.
Unfortunately, Banshee is certainly a TV show at heart – not a drawn out movie like True Detective – but it’s an unusual TV show with a refreshing unpredictability. I’ve always been a fan of stories where the hero has nothing to lose and that is Lucas Hood for sure. So I’ll suspend my disbelief and watch this band of thugs and thieves kill, maim and have sex with each other, at least until April when my favorite group of Knights, Lords and Ladies return to do much of the same.