If Quentin Tarantino cranked out a contemporary answer to Boardwalk Empire and Justified, mixed with a little Big Love to get the provocative juices flowing, then it'd probably look something like Banshee, Cinemax's new original series. Created with the intention of expanding the network's original programming (and to draw attention by pushing some boundaries), the show arrives on the steam of True Blood and Six Feet Under producer Alan Ball, assuring that some degree of snappy dialogue and saucy characterization, crammed within a tweaked outlook on the American Gothic, would factor in. What comes as a surprise is how much violence and raw passion crams into this yarn about an untamed ex-convict turned lawman, a nameless and unreadable rogue who drags a small Pennsylvania town into his bloody, vengeful past. Much like the town of Banshee itself, it's an unpredictable and volatile journey hallmarked by well-drawn characters, despite its own war with believability along the way.
Antony Starr's protagonist doesn't remain "nameless" for long. After serving fifteen years in prison, he finds his way to Banshee in search of the remnants of the life he once had, only to discover that everything he'd like to reclaim after his time served -- the love of his life and partner in crime, Carrie/Ana (Ivana Milicevic), his profession, and $10 million in diamonds -- are all lost due to the passage of time and misfortune. Through a twist of happenstance, however, with a little blood spilt and a few bodies hidden away (and the help of a stranger, Sugar), he's given the opportunity to do something he does well: con the town of Banshee into believing he's the interim sheriff, Lucas Hood. From there, Hood awkwardly attempts to integrate with the township and his new police coworkers, where his recently-released edginess gets the better of him as he unleashes his own brand of law-serving. He doesn't really have a plan, outside of being near the woman he once loved and hiding from the employer, Mr. Rabbit (Ben Cross), that he screwed over, but the town's obstacles naturally draw his attention to Banshee's resident ex-Amish tycoon, Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen).
Banshee has to be taken in stride at the beginning, though, starting on a reckless, blatantly action-driven note that substitutes common sense for a bracing introduction to Hood's situation. Despite being in an era where it's easy -- and often mandatory -- to know what an incoming member of one's staff looks like, "Hood" manages to pass for an inbound government-paid sheriff through the town's mayor and the police department's other officers, even before something can be done to modify his identity. Eventually, the show's writers acknowledge that hiccup in logic, even shaping the dubiousness into a few decent cliffhangers once his exposure grows wider, and that lingering doubt fades as Hood gruffly wedges into the everyday workings of the small Pennsylvania town. Yet, that's not the only instance of convenience in the show's writing, holding the show back from stepping up to another level as it relies on salty banter, zealous posturing, and eminent violence to move Hood between situations.
Lucas Hood's shifting attitude as an ex-con enforcing the law becomes the show's linchpin, and not quite in the ways one might expect. Those expecting a predictable progression of a criminal turned do-gooder should be surprised at how tightly the brazen renegade sticks to his past ways and loose morals, where the storytelling deliberately avoids stereotypical heroic redemption. He's a con man playing a role for as long as he's able to, something Banshee never loses sight of; he sleeps with several women (whom have intriguing backgrounds) and drowns his sorrows in liquor, eventually even leading Hood back into the world of committing crimes. Combined with Antony Starr's stubbly, wild-eyed intimidation as he charges into situations, from fist fights to drug raids, Hood's impulsiveness draws us in as he manages to justify his self-interested attitude towards wanting to stay in Banshee. Hood's gallery of supporting rogues adds a dash of spice to the situation -- from Frankie Faison's weathered wisdom as Sugar to Hoon Lee's sardonic cross-dressing hacker, Job -- while his rapport with Ulrich Thomsen's Proctor compellingly revolves around the idea that he might need to bargain with this intimidating devil to get other things accomplished in town. And Ivana Milicevic's bold performance provides just the right backbone of sensuality and intensity to justify Hood's forlorn undertones.
The environment created by this eponymous Pennsylvania town also sparks a degree of storytelling interest, a slice of twisted rustic Americana that exists on the cusp of Amish and Native American cultures. The more obvious side of this world-building lies in Kai Proctor's past with the Amish: the distance between he and his heritage reminds one of a tweak to Bill Henrickson's distance from fundamentalist Mormons in Big Love, only less heavy-handed and insistent over which side is right and wrong. No easy pot-shots are taken at the conflict of cultures, instead reminding one of the fact that Proctor's family have been responsible for sustaining the town of Banshee for over 150 years. Contemporary Native American elements also work their way into the narrative, mostly built around the local casino and their dealings with Kai Proctor, with flickers of thematic material about the transition from tradition to harsh modern business practices -- similar to Proctor's metamorphosis. While it doesn't inform the narrative much outside of tying back to Hood's own conflict of identity, it makes the town's zany secrets and conflicts feel more alive, especially when a conflicted Amish girl (Lili Simmons) mingles with Banshee's populace.
After some natural growing pains due to its own conflict of identity, Banshee focuses its strengths as an action-packed game of chess between the police force and the town's criminal underbelly, often pointing to Proctor's sketchy string-pulling as the source. The show doesn't shy away from relishing the brutality and bloodiness of high-stakes scenarios either, zeroing in on how Hood's devil-may-care tactics demolish the line between protocol and the end justifying the means -- a tempo that intentionally throws back to classic Western bravado. Several lengthy hand-to-hand brawls also appear in the show that, arguably, stick around longer than they probably should; one actually lasts for the majority of an episode, interspersed with events that happen elsewhere. They're so wild and gritty as they go over the top, though, that it'll make one overlook the fact that they're impractical and fail to move the story forward, perhaps even intentionally stalling it. Entertainment value and raw thrills trump practicality here, and there's a lot to go around.
Ultimately, the big curiosity becomes not whether Lucas Hood will be found by his former employer or discovered to be a fraud, but when -- and how the love of his life, the woman who dominates his dreams despite now being a married mother of two to a district attorney, would resolve their relationship. Through the police raids, brutal fights, and back-alley deaths, Hood's shaky, emotional grasp on his past and present life remains the show's emotional core as it flirts with addressing that eminent revelation head-on, a conflict that pushes this first season flush up to its volatile conclusion. Banshee reveals a lot about our antihero -- how he learned to fight, how he survived prison, where the boundaries of his chivalry lie -- and it proves to be an intriguing-enough foundation whether he's the loose-cannon sheriff of a small town or simply an ex-con who wants something resembling his old life back. It's unknown where the road will take Hood and his crew, or whether Hood's identity will remain intact, but it'll be worth continuing to see how he'll dig himself out of this hole he's landed in.
Banshee: The Complete First Season arrives from Warner/HBO Home Entertainment in a four-disc clear case with a series of hinged trays, where all of the discs sports the same black-on-red textual design. Inner artwork features a shot of Hood aiming a pistol on one side, while the other side contains an episode and special features rundown. A fine matte slipcover with raised letters replicates the outer artwork.
Video and Audio:
The way Banshee is shot can vary greatly from scene to scene: something it sports robust flesh tones and vibrant neon colors, and other times it's downright dirty and colorless. All this is part of the plan, though, conveying different ambience in different locations -- warmth and clarity in Sugar's bar, gray drabness in Hood's makeshift apartment, a mix of both in low-saturation outdoor sequences -- and the series of 1.78:1-framed transfers convey the caliber of detail and depth of an HD broadcast about as potently as you can get on standard-definition. Moments of intense textural strength and impressive depth-of-field can be seen at various points in the series, such as during intimate love-making sequences and brawls where the camera closes in on someone's bloody face, and the palette is often extremely reactive when it comes to the desired visual tone. Aside from a little smoothness and very light outdoor ringing here and there that may or may not have been avoidable, Banshee excels on DVD.
Sporting almost as much vigor as the visuals, the Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are versatile, powerful, and respectful to the surround design occasionally created by the show. It's not short on opportunities: bodies get flung around in wood-heavy rooms, punches are delivered, guns fired, and wheels screech, all of which are supported with respectable clarity and composure across the surround design -- both the highs and the bass activity. Little details earn their place in the design as well, such as the clank of a glass on a bar and the splash of someone diving in the water. Verbal clarity hits all the right notes, if a bit reserved in fidelity when it attempts to interact with the atmosphere. Moreover, the evocative music that often commands the series' tone manages to flex quite a bit of muscle, yet never drowning out the sound effects. Everything sounds just about as great as it looks. English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are available.
Appearing on three of the four discs are a series of Audio Commentaries that vary in participating cast and crew across the entire series. Each one with the tracks -- Pilot; Meet the New Boss and The Kindred; Wicks, Behold a Pale Rider and We Shall Live Forever -- includes participants central to those episodes being successes. Show producers Jonathan Tropper and Greg Yaitanes discuss the premiere episode as an "origin story" and name-dropping Peter Weir's Witness as an obvious aesthetic inspiration, stunt coordinators touch on the hurdles they had to jump in order to get aggressive action on-screen, and editors take the opportunity to chat about getting "internalized" flashback scenes seamlessly into certain moments. The tracks are laid back yet enthusiastic, as is fitting with many burgeoning TV series.
Also included on Disc One are the thirteen Banshee Origins (33:52, 16x9) webisodes that fill in small gaps throughout the series, starting back fifteen years prior to the current timeline. Surprisingly, the content contained within can be fairly enlightening to some of the series secondary plot mysteries, such as the connection between Proctor and Sugar and how Siobhan became involved with the police force. I'd struggle to say that the content is "crucial", but most of the bits are worth the thirty-minute time to just watch 'em all. Furthermore, a primary Town of Secrets "making of" glimpse at Banshee takes a general look at the Pennsylvania town itself, while a NYC Bus Crash (2:27, 16x9) illustrates the extensive and rather successful visual effects employed during the aggressive crash sequence that starts the series off.
From there, the remaining handful of features are scattered across the rest of the discs. Around ten minutes of non-essential Deleted Scenes appear on the last two discs, while a pair of brief Zooming In (3:21, 16x9) making of features chronicle the construction of two heavy action set-pieces later in the season. Wrapping things up is a Season Two Teaser Trailer which barely meets even the criterion of the term, since it "teased" practically nothing about the next season.
Once you get beyond the unlikeliness of Banshee's premise, you'll find a vigorous, well-felt action series from Cinemax that allows its strengths to quickly sink its claws into those watching. Plenty of violence and sex are to be found in this story of an ex-con posing as the sheriff of a small-ish Pennsylvania town, yet there's a substantial backbone to what's going on that revolves around identity and lingering in the past. With that sense of purpose driving it forward, the series gets it hands dirty with well-orchestrated action sequences that revolve around a renegade sheriff's lack of restraint in getting things done, reveling in its tumultuous rhythm as Hood's past and present rush towards one another. It's addictive, stylized television that pulls through its premiere seasons with enough of a foundation to keep watching. Strongly Recommended.