Cinemax continues its foray into scripted programming with the action thriller Banshee, debuting Jan. 11.
For executive producer Greg Yaitanes, it’s a far cry from the protected hospital walls of House. “The thing that attracted me to Banshee, good or bad, there’s nothing like it on television right now,” Yaitanes, who described Banshee as a “pulp” drama, told The Hollywood Reporter. (In an early episode, ex-con Lucas Hood (Antony Starr) engages in a steamy sex scene before things flash back to an earlier sexual escapade.)
The 10-episode drama was originally for sister channel HBO, but as executive producer Alan Ball tells it, it was kismet when it went to Cinemax. “At Cinemax, we went to our original pitch again: high-octane entertainment, violent and clever, yet complex. It also allows us to treat the sexuality in the show in a very frank and adult manner,” he told THR.
The series follows Hood, who leaves jail after 15 years and re-assimilates into the world by heading to Banshee, Pa., taking on the identity of the murdered town sheriff as he is hunted by gangsters he betrayed years ago. “Banshee ends up being taut, entertaining and smart enough, and you won’t completely turn your brain off,” wrote THR‘s television critic Tim Goodman in his review.
Yaitanes chatted with THR about the perks of being on a subscriber-reliant network, blurred ethical lines and expectations of additional season pickups.
The Hollywood Reporter: Banshee is a far cry from House. Can you speak to the nature of this show, which has far more sex and violence?
Greg Yaitanes: [Laughs] The thing that attracted me to Banshee, good or bad. there’s nothing like it on television right now. To explore these characters with a very pulp, sexual canvas was very attractive to me. We wanted to create a very satisfying and engaging 10 episodes for the audience. For me, to not have the network and not have commercial interruption and to not be bound by a format was very attractive. Banshee is an ebb and flow every week. Banshee being a 10-episode experience is a good amount of time to commit. Every episode is better than the one before it, which is something that me as a viewer I get excited by. I tried to make moves throughout the season that I’d personally want to watch for a show like this. As someone who is frequently unsatisfied with my TV watching, I really wanted to make something that I would want to engage in and enter into every week.
THR: You can certainly get away with more and show more on Cinemax. Was there still a line that couldn’t be crossed?
Yaitanes: Interestingly, the great thing about working with Cinemax was their willingness to take chances and to take it as far as we want to go. We don’t do anything for the sake of doing anything because we can. Being able to show sex, violence and not having commercials got us in a mode that was more cinematic, but we’re not looking to exploit the format. The fact that we have more brushes to paint with is really what we’ve been excited about.
THR: How the main character integrates himself into the town of Banshee in the first episode is rather gruesome. Is that a sign of things to come in forthcoming episodes?
Yaitanes: When people come and experience an episode of Banshee, they’re going to have a full journey every week, and ultimately it’ll come to a pretty stunning conclusion. Episode one is very representative of the heightened drama. Everything’s there but again, nothing’s exploitive. Everything serves the story.
THR: And the consequences play into it.
Yaitanes: The consequences are something that we deal with every week. You can’t just roll into a town and insert yourself into people’s lives and not affect that. Lucas is that rock that drops in the pond. As he infects the world around him, those consequences are going to come back. He does not get a free pass.
THR: How close does he get to having his true identity found out?
Yaitanes: His true identity is always under threat of being exposed. The drive of season one is the love story between Lucas and old flame Carrie, but along the way there are people sniffing out who Lucas really is. It’s always going to be bristling under the surface.
THR: The ethical lines are blurred because here you have an ex-con serving as a town sheriff. How does Lucas deal with that moral gray area? Does he begin to lean toward one side?
Yaitanes: What’s interesting with Lucas is that he doesn’t know where that line is, he doesn’t know what the ethics are. You’re dealing with someone who’s pretending to do a job they don’t know how to do. He doesn’t really know what’s right and what’s wrong. He’s just following his impulsive gut instincts, which do not always serve him well. The world has moved on without him for 15 years, and he hasn’t realized that. This season is like the coming of age of Lucas Hood. We don’t just plateau Lucas from when we meet him across the season. He’s changing every week, he’s dealing with his situation and realizing there’s more to this life and to what he’s trying to do than he thought. He’ll come face to face with those consequences.
THR: Is this his way of assimilating back into the real world, however screwed up it may be?
Yaitanes: Assimilating by pretending to be someone you’re not and forcing yourself into someone’s life who doesn’t necessarily want you but who also does want you. Everybody is going through something, everybody is caught in the middle of their secrets and their lies. It’s messy; it’s psychologically messy. There is no clean-cut right or wrong. Everybody can relate to that. Everybody can relate to being stuck in a situation where you don’t know what the best thing is because all outcomes are going to be challenging. Although we’re heightened, there’s a lot of things people can relate to in this.
THR: Even though it features extraordinary situations, at the core it’s a grounded drama. Is what you’re saying?
Yaitanes: It’s phenomenally grounded. When we get into the later episodes in the season especially, for what Lucas and the rest of the characters are going through, everyone will viscerally feel what they’re going through.
THR: You’re also changing up the opening titles for each episode with different images. Why did you decide to do that?
Yaitanes: When I was working in network television, the opening credits are often disregarded and sometimes sacrificed in order to tell a little more story. When we were doing a packed episode of House, we had a five-second title card. When I got to Cinemax, to have 75 seconds of a title sequence, that’s a lot of real estate, so why not use that time to tell a story? Not only do the titles change every week, they’re also telling these micro-stories of each character. If you start watching all of these title sequences, you’ll notice the photographs are incredibly relevant to what the characters are going through or have experienced in the past, and there is a lot of psychological foreshadowing in the main title. We’re telling a story in every inch of the show. I didn’t want to leave anything left untapped. For that hour I have them, I want to give the audience as much of a satisfying experience as I can possibly create.
THR: Hints to that particular episode or the character arc as a whole?
Yaitanes: With the “Welcome to Banshee” site, we’ll actually go into the psychological meaning of the title sequences. If I love a show, I will go as deep as possible, and I want to make sure that if people engage in Banshee, there is something waiting for them everywhere. We wanted to fully embrace all the years of mythology; if this comes down to two people who are enjoying the show and geeking out over the title sequences, then I would be at my happiest [to know that] people are picking up on things that are evolving and that they care.
THR: Are the post-credits scenes just icing on the cake or previews for the next episode?
Yaitanes: If you miss them, you don’t miss anything. If you stay for them, they’re all relevant to the episode they take place in. They give you just an extra bit of information. I want people feeling at the end of an episode, “Ohhh shit.”
THR: What can be expected of the lead-up to the season finale?
Yaitanes: Everything happens [in episodes nine and 10]. Everything you want to have happen in the season, or wish for, or hope will get answered or dealt with, will happen. Everything. We have one edict: Go with every season as though it’s the last and make it the best possible experience. We don’t want to save anything. We have years of story we can tell, but we want every year to feel like you came there and got this amazing experience, and I want people to say in the end, “What the f–k are they going to do next year?”
THR: So you have a season-two blueprint?
Yaitanes: Definitely. In pickup, we have a great season two in the works. We’re hopeful that after the premiere we’ll announce the second season, and if we do, then we have great things planned. We have a lot of Banshee to tell.
THR: The ratings expectation for Cinemax is very different than that of network standards. Less pressure?
Yaitanes: It’s very freeing to be working under a business model than a ratings model. Cinemax is a subscriber-based network, and they know what they can make the show for and still be OK. That was our goal: being not only a show that was great but was fiscally responsible.
Banshee debuts 10 p.m. Friday on Cinemax.