Television Review: ‘Banshee’ on Cinemax

January 11th, 2013

Fred Norris/Cinemax

Banshee The New Zealand actor Antony Starr in this new series, an American Gothic noir with echoes of Quentin Tarantino, from Cinemax. It starts Friday night at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.

“Banshee,” the latest action-and-attitude series from Cinemax, comes on strong — almost comically so. In the first few minutes the show’s unnamed hero walks out of prison and down some mood-setting railroad tracks, has sex with a waitress and steals a muscle car. Having checked those items off the hard-boiled mystery man’s to-do list, he branches out, tracking down an Asian hairdresser-drag queen from his past, getting shot at and chased through the streets of Lower Manhattan and narrowly avoiding death by a sliding double-decker bus.

Perhaps the hyperbolic opening of Friday night’s premiere — part comic book, part “Die Hard With a Vengeance” — reflects some nervousness, an instance of trying too hard to please, on the part of the show’s creators. While “Banshee” has television pros like Greg Yaitanes (“House M.D.”) and Alan Ball (“True Blood,” “Six Feet Under”) among its crew of producers and directors, it was developed and written by Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler, a pair of New York novelists and screenwriters with limited practical experience. This appears to be the first actual TV production either has been involved with. (An accompanying online and print graphic novel, “Banshee: Origins,” certifies the writers’ taste for cartoon-style storytelling.)

The pace slows after those precredits pyrotechnics, a shift signaled immediately by the sight of the hero (the New Zealand actor Antony Starr), now on a motorcycle, cruising past Pennsylvania Dutch farmers in straw hats and white shirts. Cinemax’s first two serious original series, “Strike Back” and “Hunted,” were both international thrillers, favoring exoticism in their guns, locations and naked women. “Banshee” is a different beast, an American Gothic noir with echoes of Jim Thompson, Frank Miller and, especially, Quentin Tarantino, and it presents a different set of images and clichés to play around with.

How interesting that play will be is hard to tell from the two episodes sent to critics, which are mostly spent setting up what feels like an unusually elaborate premise. (Though it could just be unusually long winded.) Arriving in the rural town of Banshee, Pa., in search of the woman who was his lover and partner in crime 15 years ago, the protagonist — who exhibits both a standard-issue laconic likableness and a talent for violence — seizes the opportunity to assume the identity of one Lucas Hood, who dies just before starting his new job as sheriff.

The new Hood’s motives are part of the mystery — is he more concerned with retrieving the stolen diamonds that landed him in prison, or with winning back the woman (Ivana Milicevic) who helped him steal them, now a mom and a real estate agent married to the local prosecutor? Among the complicating factors in the story are two distinct villains, a local crime boss as well as the big-league gangster from whom the diamonds were stolen, and Hood’s three-member police force, confused by their new boss’s quasi-legal methods and inability to fill out paperwork.

Through two hours this all feels more artificial and cooked up than involving, though the small-town locations, shot in North Carolina, look great, and the occasional line of dialogue draws a chuckle: “Ah, you’ve seen ‘Witness,’ ” Hood’s deputy says. “That’s great.” More often, though, the writing is the kind of strained pulp — “This don’t concern you, Sugar.” “All the same, I am concerned” — that only works if delivered with more style than “Banshee,” so far, delivers. The cast, including Hoon Lee as the hairdresser-fixer and Frankie Faison as a wise old ex-boxer, is competent but not at the Samuel L. Jackson level that would be required to put a real spin on the material.

I don’t know what direction the 10-episode season will take, but there’s at least one promising possibility: that it will dial down the dull continuing mystery and focus on the weekly travails of the fish-out-of-water Hood, a career criminal trying to maintain order in a place he doesn’t understand. What looks like a flat noir thriller could still make for a pretty entertaining police procedural.

Banshee

Cinemax, Friday nights at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.

Conceived and written by Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler; Mr. Tropper, Mr. Schickler, Peter Macdissi, Allan Ball and Greg Yaitanes, executive producers.

WITH: Antony Starr (Lucas Hood), Ivana Milicevic (Carrie Hopewell), Ulrich Thomsen (Kai Proctor), Frankie Faison (Sugar Bates), Hoon Lee (Job), Rus Blackwell (Gordon Hopewell) and Matt Servitto (Brock Lotus).

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