Most new series feel like calculations. When it premiered in early 2013, Cinemax’s Banshee felt like a dare. Novelists Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler took a classic dime-store premise — an unnamed criminal emerges after 15 years in prison on the lookout for revenge, fortune, and the one that got away — and larded it with nearly every pulp possibility imaginable: stolen diamonds and illicit pills, Ukrainian mobsters and Native American gangbangers, Asian hackers and Amish slashers. No episode was complete without naked bodies writhing in the bedroom and dead bodies decomposing in the woods. Rather than viewing Cinemax’s checkered reputation as a red flag, Tropper and Schickler treated it like a green light. Banshee took the network’s bubbling Jacuzzi of carnal excess and topped it off with fresh blood and cheap whiskey before cannonballing right on in.
The pilot’s setup is brutal but never simple. Fresh out of prison, the anonymous lead (Antony Starr) stops in for a drink at a ramshackle bar on the outskirts of Banshee, a fictional Pennsylvania town just east of Pittsburgh and just south of hell. Gunshots ring out before he’s finished his beer, and the next thing he knows, he’s standing over three still-warm corpses. One is Lucas Hood, the town’s newly hired sheriff. The other two are the men who killed Hood, who were then quickly and viciously dispatched by our hero with the help of the bar owner, a boxer with a past named Sugar (Frankie Faison). And with that, the no-longer-nameless con snatches Hood’s badge and identity and then strides into Banshee fully intending neither to protect nor serve.
The goal instead is to use his stolen authority to get close to Ana (Ivana Milicevic), his onetime love and partner in larceny. She got away with the jewels when he went to jail. But Ana has a fresh identity, too: She’s changed her name to Carrie Hopewell, married the district attorney, and had two kids, the older of whom looks suspiciously like the man now known as Hood. Though she indulges in frequent (and frequently explicit!) flashbacks to the old snatch-and-grab days with “Lucas,” Carrie is fiercely protective of her new life and terrified by her inability to escape her old one. While Hood chases after Carrie, they’re both being hunted by her father, a sadistic, white-haired crime lord called Rabbit. As played by veteran English actor Ben Cross, Rabbit is the sort of man who contemplates chess pieces while seated in ornate Manhattan drawing rooms and has many thoughts on the overlap among “love, truth, and insanity.” When not moving pawns around, Rabbit orders interstate executions as casually as you would a cocktail. In an age of antiheroes, it’s awfully nice to encounter such an unapologetic villain.
To make matters worse, it quickly becomes clear that playing the part of Banshee’s sheriff involves a great deal of real work.1
As Hood soon discovers, the town is built on a moral fault line the size of the San Andreas. On one side are the modern-world-eschewing Amish. On the other, an aging and resentful Native American tribe called the Kinaho. And in the middle of it all is Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen) an ex-Amish businessman who owns a slaughterhouse and traffics mainly in blood. Everyone’s an outsider, everyone’s scrapping for a way inside. “What is it about this town?” wonders one of Hood’s old cellmates midway through Season 1. “It’s like a heaven for cons!” I may have the chronology slightly off, but I believe he said this just after he was snorting coke off of a hooker’s chest in a casino bathroom and right before having his dead eyeball nibbled on by a hungry fish at the bottom of a local pond. In Banshee’s lurid hothouse, “heaven for cons” is really just the waiting room for a more fiery and permanent destination lurking below. It’d all be hideously tawdry if it weren’t also so much fun.
Unlike many cable channels that have struggled to reinvent themselves for the scripted age, Cinemax has never lacked an identity. Since the ’80s it has been well known, particularly among teenage boys, as the place to go for exciting blockbuster movies and even more exciting blockbuster breasts. Rather than try to clean up its act, Cinemax has wisely decided to own its wild past and is pursuing a programming strategy that places a premium on sex and violence. Strike Back, the first original series to debut, hit both those targets with a certain steroidal charm. (The second, Hunted, is wisely being retooled.) As a Friday-night lead-in to Emmanuelle in Space,2 Banshee could be lazy, or cynical, or all kinds of terrible and still get decent ratings, provided guns came out and shirts came off on a regular enough basis. It’s a credit to both the network and the show’s surprisingly brainy brain trust (Tropper and Schickler are joined by executive producer Alan Ball and showrunner/director Greg Yaitanes)3 that Banshee has proven to be so much more than the sum of its body parts.
Boosted by strong performances, a winking lack of vanity, and an impressively bat-shit approach to storytelling,4 it was clear from the first season that Banshee was far better than it needed to be. In the second season, which premiered last month, everything is just better. There’s still plenty of T&A (thus far Lucas has bedded a leather-clad Kinaho killer and his best deputy) and MMA (Banshee cops are hit so frequently and so ferociously in the head that their health care premiums must rival the NFL’s). But the show feels sturdier now, in control of its intensity. Proctor’s cold war with the outmatched Kinaho chief (Anthony Ruivivar) has begun to turn hot and personal. (The latter two words also apply to Lili Simmons, as Proctor’s recently Rumsprung niece, who has a thing for Hood.) The wonderfully mercenary character actor Zeljko Ivanek is on hand as a chain-smoking, cancer-riddled fed. With Rabbit missing and presumed dead, the menace that caused early episodes to shudder and lurch like a buggy on a dirt road has smoothed. Violence is no longer a kick to the face or a gun to the head; it’s the flash of dirty pictures to blackmail a priest, the turning of a cheek to reject a fallen daughter. Recently renewed for a third season, Banshee is still an action flick. It’s just learned that not all bruises are visible.
Much of the credit belongs to the cast. When Banshee premiered, Antony Starr — an affable Kiwi best known for having terrible haircuts in comedies — seemed overwhelmed by the blankness of his character. Now that Hood has settled in, so has Starr, bringing a sly charm and surprising wit to the role. Ruthless when he needs to be, warm when given a chance, he’s the closest actor I’ve encountered to peak, Die Hard–era Bruce Willis.5 Which, I suppose, makes Kai Proctor our Hans Gruber, a comparison I think would please the wonderfully sour Thomsen. Faison, a veteran of The Wire, has a fine old time slugging shots of Jameson and cleaning up messes. Also particularly good this year have been Trieste Kelly Dunn, as Siobhan, the aforementioned deputy, and Milicevic. The events of last season’s finale left Carrie estranged from her family and sentenced to 30 days in the big house. Women-in-prison stories are nothing new to Cinemax, but Milicevic brings a quiet ferocity to her character’s incarceration, even when she’s banging fellow inmates’ heads off of benches — call it Orange Is the New Black and Blue. Every femme present is plenty fatale.
The vein Tropper and Schickler are tapping into here isn’t the same one that leads people to turn on Busty Cops or zone out to Road House — not that there’s anything particularly wrong with either. There’s a long history of high-minded literary types stooping to genre: Gore Vidal wrote mysteries as Edgar Box and, more recently, the cerebral Irish stylist John Banville has been publishing inky noir under the name Benjamin Black. Far from holding their noses, these authors strapped on their Speedos to better splash around in the muck. When dreaming up Banshee, Tropper and Schickler brought snorkels. The series is a direct descendant of generations of crime writing devoted to keeping the focus tight, the deeds dirty, and the beer cold. There’s a great deal of Donald Westlake’s Parker in Lucas Hood, a touch of K.C. Constantine in Banshee’s keen observation of rural Pennsylvania. On TV, the closest analogue would be Justified, drawn as it is from the diamond-sharp imagination of Elmore Leonard.
But the beauty of Banshee — and, admittedly, it’s often a very ugly sort of beauty — is the way Tropper and Schickler are free to dream up and indulge in their own, original weirdness. Schickler in particular seems to use his scripts as a safety valve for the demons that have spent years rattling around inside his head. After breaking through in 2000, with “The Smoker,” one of the best short stories I’ve ever read, Schickler’s career went quiet. Two novels came and went. A star-studded movie version of “The Smoker” never materialized. Last year, he published The Dark Path, a riveting account of his lifelong boxing match with Catholicism. More than anything, Banshee reflects his black-eyed vision of our gorgeously fallen world: a Kinaho girl offering an Amish boy a bite of her apple; a hot tub stained purple with cow guts; a domestic abuser beaten unconscious with a hotel-room Bible.
Banshee’s violence is often extreme; the other week, a torture scene involving farmhouse tools was as hard to watch as it was to stomach. Yet I don’t mind it. There’s thought behind every punch and, increasingly, an ocean of disgust and regret roiling beneath every kill. In the recent episode “The Truth About Unicorns,” Lucas and Carrie took a detour on the way home from prison to the future they never had a chance to share. Amid rustling fields of wheat, the two played house as best they could, until a sniper arrived and the house burned down all around them. It was lovely to look at, all gold-flecked and shimmery, and also unbearably sad. It suggested that cruel, painful death is as inevitable as the changing of the seasons or the disappointment of a lover. The truth about unicorns is, of course, that they don’t exist.
I was surprised as anyone that Banshee was capable of this sort of poetry, especially when its prose is exhilarating enough. Cable is littered with the chalk outlines of dozens of swaggering cop dramas; my DVR runs red with arterial spray. Even with its gonzo detours into Native American supermen and bullet-hole stigmata, Banshee stands out for its humility, as well as its rare flashes of humor. There’s no need for it to feign importance or grasp at profundity. Unlike its mysterious protagonist, Banshee knows exactly what it is. It’s dark without being heavy. It’s fun but never feels light. Not all violence needs to be investigated or commented upon. Sometimes it’s enough just to care about the people who are being hit.