Thursday, 27 August 2015

Catching up on... BANSHEE, season one

Thursday, 27 August 2015

I almost pine for the days when American television effectively shut up shop over summer, because it at least gave you a chance to catchup with the good TV you missed from across the pond. Nowadays there are dozens of great shows airing all year round, many during the only slightly quieter summer, so it's a real struggle to find time to watch everything. Or even 50% of the best stuff. Still, the last few weeks of of August is the closest thing to a TV drought we still have, so it's the only time I can consider watching any overlooked recommendations. And this past weekend, that's been Cinemax's Banshee.

The main reason for my re-watch was editing Simon Cocks' review of Banshee's third season for Frame Rated (which was tricky to do while avoiding spoilers, but I somehow managed to trigger a kind of short-term amnesia). I actually reviewed Banshee back when it debuted in 2013 and remember watching the first two episodes, but not feeling inclined to continue. I was probably snowed under with other things that took priority back then, but I have re-read my original pilot review for MSN (sadly deleted from the web after Microsoft's employment shakeup) and my two concerns were the performance of lead actor Antony Starr and a general feeling of scrappy quality. Cinemax has yet to shake-off its Skinemax nickname, as the cable network that skews towards men with its preference for nudity and violence.

Still, everything deserves a second chance. Certainly three years later, with the knowledge Banshee's fourth and final season isn't too far away. The great thing about skipping a show like Banshee (that isn't popular enough to fill my Twitter with spoilers), is that you can return to it many years later and be confident it must have done something right to have lasted this long. And there are 30 episodes to binge!

So I devoured the first season of 10 hours in just under three days. Being able to do that is a review in itself, or at least an acknowledgement Banshee is addictive enough to keep me hitting 'play' 9 times over 72-hours. Have I changed my mind about the show three years later? Sort of, but not fully. I still don't think it's a quality piece of television, because its internal logic is ridiculous and the first season only ever came alive whenever it was focused on the action, fighting, and its Rogue's Gallery of repellent mobsters.

For the uninitiated, Banshee concerns a jewel thief (Starr) who finishes a 15-year sentence and travels to the eponymous Pennsylvanian town to find his female accomplice/ex-lover Anastasia (Ivana Miličević)—who's gone into hiding from her crime lord father 'Rabbit' (Ben Cross) by taking a new identity and becoming a wife and mother. Ironically, this is also what the unnamed thief decides to do, as he jumps on an opportunity to assume the identity of the town's murdered sheriff, Lucas Hood.

It's a ludicrous but enticing setup: a bad-ass ex-felon now "playing cop" in a small Amish town, all while trying to reignite a relationship with an old flame who knows his true identity. And despite the hamlet's picturesque look, Banshee is far from a sleepy little backwater—as we soon discover it's run by local kingpin Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen) and has a tendency to attract all manner of lowlifes and dangerous people. And guess who's the ideal person to keep the peace, using his own brand of hardened justice? No prizes.

I actually had a good time watching Banshee in quick doses over a weekend of afternoons, but I'm not sure I'd have been quite so entertained if I was watching one hour per week. That would mean more time to pick holes in things, or get impatient with some of the slower subplots that swam in circles.

Bingeing has its own downsides, too, because it became very noticeable how practically every episode involves Hood being savagely beaten to a messy pulp... only to appear in the very next episode with no scars, cuts, or bruises. If there's a drinking game involving the number of times Starr's face gets bloodied, or he appears bare-chested before having sex, expect to have your stomach pumped in an emergency room by midnight.

Banshee certainly delivers what you expect from the network that gave us the macho and Americanised version of Strike Back (well, before Steven Soderbergh raised the game with the genuine quality of The Knick). It's extremely violent. A gruesome shot of a man's fingers being torn asunder, horizontally, still has me wincing days later; second only to the moment when a piece of cheese wire cuts a man's fingers off like they're soft sausage. This show has a thing about finger torture. It's seriously unpleasant when it wants to be. And Starr spends most episodes either fighting or shagging whichever pretty girl crosses his gaze. The sex scenes are all soft-porn male fantasies, with full frontal female nudity from some leading actresses... but only occasional shots of Starr's naked ass. You think Game of Thrones get a rough time for its 'sexposition'? Banshee appears to be complying to a network-ordered quota of naked breasts, which can't help making it feel like the FHM of TV drama.

There are also plenty of occasions when you can't help but question the intelligence of almost everyone on this show, because the fundamental concept doesn't hold water. You'd know within a few days that Hood has no clue about the intricacies of being a policeman. And there are moments throughout the season where you're left scratching your head: like how Hood gets away with physical abusing people and generally being extremely unprofessional. (One early episode even had someone film Hood beat a man half to death and posting it online, as a cliffhanger that was forgotten about). Or why Hood risks exposure by continuing to be involved in large-scale heists with his A-Team-esque group of ne'er-do-wells. You don't shit on your own doorstep, right? That's rule number one. Even I know that.

Banshee isn't aiming to be anything of Emmy-winning quality in the writing department, of course. It's nowhere close to being as skilfully written as any of this Golden Age's top 20 dramas, but clearly enjoys delivering something akin to a live-action graphic novel. Hood's a handsome, dangerous rogue whom we can't help but like as he goes about his "duties"; punishing fellow criminals that get in his way. The show reminded me of 1973's Walking Tall (a semi-autobiographical film about an ex-special forces sergeant who became his hometown's Sheriff to protect them from an intruding criminal element), which was later remade in 2004 with Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson.

Kiwi actor Starr doesn't have The Rock's charisma, but as a cross between Bradley Cooper and Ross Kemp he's a very capable action star. I certainly found myself happy to watch him kick ass in various ways, as his deputies look agog at their boss's unorthodox ways and brutal streak. Shame the writing that pins everything together is often sorely lacking in nuance and depth, but maybe things improve over the next few seasons. I've begun the second season, and can already see some improvement and an attempt to flesh-out the supporting characters... who are almost comically underwritten in this season.

BANSHEE is streaming on Sky's NOW TV service in the UK.