Alan Ball's 'Banshee': TV Review

Banshee - P 2013

Banshee - P 2013

Violence, sex and intrigue are all wrapped up in better-than-expected writing.

The Cinemax drama comes from the "True Blood" vet and Emmy-winning "House" director Greg Yaitanes.

This review first appeared in the Jan. 18, 2013 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It’s always a welcome sign when creatively dormant — some even might say pointless or redundant — cable channels come to life. These days, most are finding their awakening via scripted material, which can be a real gift to viewers.

Credit Cinemax, the HBO sister channel best known by its nickname “Skin-emax,” for jumping into the scripted game with Strike Back, a surprisingly entertaining drama that recently finished a successful second season and will return in 2013. (Like all channels trying to launch, or relaunch, shows, there will be misses, and Hunted, another series with fine potential, just never caught on with viewers.)

Now on Jan. 11 comes Banshee, an hourlong show about a master thief-turned-con man and his post-prison attempt to steer clear of the gangsters he betrayed in the past.

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Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler created the show and enlisted True Blood’s Alan Ball to help guide the project and Emmy-winning director Greg Yaitanes (House) to set the mood and feel. In doing that, they didn’t depart too much from what Cinemax is finding to be a good formula: action, violence, sex and intrigue all wrapped up in better-than-expected writing that puts more intelligence than cliches into the process.

Banshee certainly has the potential to bust out. It features New Zealander Antony Starr (the Australian TV series Rush) as Lucas Hood, who years ago worked with a secretive and vicious Ukrainian mobster named Rabbit (Chariots of Fire’s Ben Cross) before doing something he probably shouldn’t have, hence the constant threats on his life.

After serving a 15-year stint in prison, Hood’s first priority is to track down a fellow thief and the love of his life, who’s now living in Banshee, Pa. To track her, he goes to Job (Hoon Lee), a transvestite hair salon owner by day but also a dangerous criminal who’s a com- puter hacker and expert at identity switches.

But once Hood lands in Banshee, he realizes that his old flame is now Carrie Hopewell (Ivana Milicevic), a married mother of two using an assumed name and fitting in effort- lessly around the town. Of course, it’s always a bit of a stretch when thrillers and crime stories go in for the elaborate, and in Banshee that happens when Hood’s in a small bar and meets the new sheriff of Banshee, who starts his first day after coming out from the Pacific Northwest.

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A couple of thug moves later, the new sheriff is dead, and that’s when Hood assumes his identity. As sheriff, the cover gives him a place to hide out from Rabbit and his assassins as well as an opportunity to butt heads with Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), a former Amish member and current kingpin who runs every- thing in Banshee that can turn a profit. He’s untouchable and knows it — but he doesn’t know Hood and his own brand of danger.

Yes, it can often sound like a pulp setup bound to go sideways, but Banshee ends up being taut, entertaining and smart enough, and you won’t completely turn your brain off.

Starr is intriguing, and the tone set by Tropper and Schickler hooks you immediately. Yaitanes has infused the first hour with the kind of directing that makes it feel like a movie, with big flourishes and well-constructed smaller moments. The series is shot in and around North Carolina, but the more rural elements of Pennsylvania come through distinctly to give the series a sense of place.

The writers have assembled a number of interesting characters and dole out the back- stories slowly and with an assured hand. You get the sense after five episodes of Banshee that the series is going to get deeper and better. That’s a nice promise, evidence that Cinemax is fully in the scripted game.