There is a lot going on during the first season of Cinemax drama Banshee - not always for the better. Each episode hurls new characters, flashbacks and plot twists at the viewer, and Banshee at times tries too hard to be everything to everybody. Swerving between a gritty crime drama, heist thriller, True Blood-esque camp, and the noir trappings of Raymond Chandler's novels, Banshee is certainly ambitious. Named for its small-town Pennsylvania setting, Banshee sees an ex-con assume the identity of Sheriff Lucas Hood and begin doling out rough justice to local mobsters while searching for the man who made his fifteen years in prison a living hell. The chaos of early episodes is a bit jarring, but it is hard to resist falling into Banshee's entertaining trap. Minor characters become major players as the action moves forward, and Banshee ends on a high note that should sustain the series for several seasons.
After fifteen years in prison, a man (Antony Starr) walks into a bar. The bar is subsequently robbed, but the man kills the criminals. Also killed is Lucas Hood, the incoming sheriff for Banshee, Pennsylvania. The man is also going to Banshee, and decides to become Sheriff Hood. The new Hood spent fifteen years in prison for stealing diamonds from gangster Mr. Rabbit (Ben Cross) and came to Banshee to find his former partner and lover, Anastasia. Hood is shocked to find Anna living as Carrie Hopewell (Ivana Milicevic), the wife of District Attorney Gordon Hopewell (Rus Blackwell) and mother of Deva (Ryann Shane) and Max (Gabriel Suttle). Hood is not pleased to find that neither his diamonds nor his lover are readily available.
Spoiling the who's and what's of Banshee would be a disservice to potential viewers, but I will say there are many interconnected characters and plot threads, as well as several that become important only as the series moves forward. Several episodes deal almost exclusively with Hood's work as sheriff, which is complicated by low-level criminals and chameleon Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), Banshee's criminal kingpin and a former member of the local Amish community. Proctor at first seems like a superfluous character that is neither particularly menacing nor very effective at this job, but then Banshee turns its well-spoken hoodlum into a compelling anti-hero. In Banshee, being bad isn't necessarily a fatal flaw, as long as you're not the wrong kind of bad. That would be Mr. Rabbit, a New York City gangster with ties to Hood, Carrie and Job (Hoon Lee), a transgender hacker who is Hood's right-hand man. Mr. Rabbit is dangerous when a business deal goes bad, but with Hood it's personal.
This being a Cinemax production, there are certain unspoken quotas for violence and sex that must be met. Banshee delivers in spades, with its graphic fights, headshots and Skinemax sex scenes. Those unaccustomed to such things may find Banshee a bit tawdry, but the pay cable content actually works well within Banshee's parameters for excess. The show's production values don't rival those of HBO and Showtime hits Game of Thrones and Homeland but that's fine. Banshee is a bit schizophrenic, but most of the action is anchored to the town streets. Diversions like a violent motorcycle gang that attacks during a town celebration only serve to sharpen Hood's claws - he is sheriff, after all - and giving Carrie's son Max dangerous asthma is a tired plot device used only for convenience in later episodes.
Such contrivances lessen the show's impact somewhat, but I found myself getting caught up in Hood's eventual reunion with Carrie and Job and Proctor's union with similarly banished niece Rebecca Bowman (Lili Simmons), who gets a crash course in being a gangster when some casino owners try to strong-arm Proctor. There are car chases, boxing matches, verbal showdowns and a handful of quiet character scenes during this first season, and Banshee is far from boring. I hope subsequent seasons give me a reason to like Hood a bit more. The jury is still out on him, and the season ends with Proctor as the most compelling character. Banshee is overstuffed and somewhat undercooked, but the series provides a nice medley of drama and intrigue.
Each episode is given a 1.78:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. The series is all over the place in terms of filming style, color schemes and light levels, but the collective image is good. Detail is solid throughout, even when the digital photography tries to smooth things over a bit. Colors are nicely saturated and black levels are good, though there is a bit of crush in some nighttime scenes. Skin tones are accurate and texture is strong in both close-ups and wide shots. There are no big issues with shimmer or smearing.
Each episode is presented with a strong 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The sound quality of Banshee is more cinematic than you might expect, and the soundtrack makes great use of the surround speakers and subwoofer. Dialogue is always crystal clear and balanced appropriately with effects and score. Action and ambient effects utilize the rear speakers, and more intense scenes are supported by the LFE. Gunfire crackles around the sound field, punches land with authority and a car chase spills over from speaker to speaker. The pulsing soundtrack is also effective and weighty. Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital tracks are also available, as are English SDH, French, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
HBO and Warner Brothers releases Banshee: The Complete First Season on Blu-ray for Cinemax. This four-disc set includes all ten season one episodes, as well as some decent bonus materials. The discs are packed into a dual-hinged Blu-ray case, which slides into a cardboard outer box. The set also includes an insert with codes to redeem both UltraViolet and iTunes digital copies of each episode.
The features are spread out over all four discs and include the following: There are six Audio Commentaries with the cast and crew that provide insight into the production. These appear on episodes "Pilot," "Meet the New Boss, "The Kindred," "Wicks," "Behold a Pale Rider," and "We Shall Live Forever." The participants include Director S. J. Clarkson, Creator/Executive Producer David Schickler, and actor Starr. I'm not personally a fan of commentaries for TV episodes, but it's nice that they are included.
Inside The Title Sequence (HD) featurettes appear for each episode. These explore the images and codes found in each title sequence but do involve a lot of clicking and viewer interaction. Banshee Origins (HD) is a good, half-hour making-of documentary comprised of fifteen separate segments that cover everything from the characters to the action sequences. Comic Book (HD) is an interactive feature that allows viewers to piece together the story of Lucas Hood. There are a couple of brief promotional featurettes, Town of Secrets (HD) and NYC Bus Crash (HD), alongside Zooming In: Episodes 7 & 8 (HD), which is way too short to be effective. Reveal the Code (HD) unravels the meaning of the opening lock code from each episode, and things wrap up with a few Deleted Scenes (HD) and a Season 2 Teaser Trailer (HD).
Some shows are better when you can watch a bunch of episodes in quick succession. Banshee: The Complete First Season is such a show, as the chaotic Cinemax drama is more effective when viewers allow themselves to be completely sucked into the chaotic story of Lucas Hood, an ex-con that assumes the identity of a small-town sheriff. This first season is somewhat overstuffed, weaving its way through the trappings of crime thrillers, noir potboilers and steamy romances, but Banshee is never boring. Recommended.