Cinemax has been getting their feet wet in serialized dramas recently, importing promising action series Strike Back and Hunted from the UK. Banshee, created by two crime novelists and with Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood) as an EP, is Cinemax’s first real foray into original programming – and after watching the pilot, it is a promising one. It’s definitely not the best of pilots, filling in the margins with some thin characters and predictable mystery-building segments, but it tells its story with a certain grisly energy that ignites each violent moment, and sets up the foundation for a story I can get on board with.
Now, watching a modern cable drama pilot comes with some pre-requisites: there has to be tits, there has to be some violence, and there has to be some allusion to themes to come. Banshee gets the first two out of the way in the first ten minutes, and spends the last forty or so minutes attending to the last, introducing a large gathering of characters in Banshee, PA, a country poke town that just happens to house two former master thieves at the same time.
Those two thieves are the center of the show: our anti-hero, Not Lucas Hood, a con who assumes the identity of the dead soon-to-be sheriff of Banshee after the real Lucas is shot. Of course, he takes the job to protect his former associate/girlfriend Diana, who is now living under the name Carol, married and the mother of two kids with the town D.A. Gordon. The pilot doesn’t get too far into what he’s protecting her from, but it involves $10 million in diamonds they stole, right before Not Lucas sacrificed himself to the police so she could get away.
Mixed in there is Jobe (a cross dressing hairdresser/fake ID maker who lines his salons with explosives, just in case), a bar owner/former boxer named Sugar (Frankie Faison, a face any Wire fan will smile at seeing), and the show’s two antagonists: the mayor Kai Proctor (whose father is wicked Amish, by the way) and the largely unseen Rabbit (Ben Cross, whose face is only seen in the episode’s closing moments), the man who Diana/Not Lucas stole said diamonds from.
Still there? Yes, the pilot is a whirlwind, but there’s a lot to introduce in the pilot, something the show actually breezes through quite well – thanks to the smart use of action over words, letting most of the character motivations and gray areas get filled in with minimal dialogue (for example, the show doesn’t beat us over the head with a speech by Lucas about how he has to ‘protect the woman he loves’, facts that are already abundantly clear). Some of the characterizations will need some work – Sugar doesn’t come across as much except the black guy with witty things to say, and Diana’s rebellion against her former life isn’t much more than stock “this isn’t who I am anymore… I have a family!” yet.
But there are some interesting themes being played with in the pilot. Like anything with Ball’s name on it, lines and quick plot points about religion are strewn about, most notably when the real Lucas Hood dies and says “Hope my mom was right about God”, or when Not Lucas gets sworn in, he finishes his inauguration with “so help me God”. What struck me most, is how the pilot silently pokes at the ideas of identity, and trying to shed/reshape those: every character, from Sugar to Lucas to Proctor, are all living out lives with the shadows of who they “used to be” hanging over their heads at every turn. How do our actions deceive the perceptions we try to create for ourselves? Like Brock Lotus – Matt Servino of The Sopranos fame, playing the bitter cop who was supposed to get Hood’s promotion - suggests, the way we act show the window into who we really are, no matter how much we act otherwise.
It makes for a slick, confident pilot that indulges itself in its violence and nudity early on, then turned its attention on world-building in the second – a world with enough characters, I’m willing to forgive it for some of its empty characterizations for now. With two crime novelists at the helm, I’m intrigued to see how they handle the externals (the mystery/conspiracy plot) with the internals (its characters and their interactions) through the ten episode first season.
- the thinnest character of them all might be Chevon, the tough female cop who only knows the word ‘fuck’, and can’t help taking a second look at another man in a police uniform.
- Sugar makes a steak to die for.
- Job’s explosive necklace was totally convenient, but still kind of bad ass.
- did anyone believe Diana/Carol when she said her daughter was 13? Definitely Not Lucas’s kid.
- nice Strike Back ad on the oddly high-scale opening scene with the double decker bus.
- the opening montage of Not Lucas leaving prison and driving to PA (minus the getting laid scene) is full of imagery of lines being straddled and crossed. Great utilization of scenery like the prison entrance, railroad tracks, and onway ramps.
- Proctor: “Oh shit, that’s you Dad! Nice beard, sorry I became a criminal with Jesus tattoos and whores in my living room.”