In his saucy review of the high-octane action flick Running Scared, the late, great Roger Ebert wrote: “Running Scared goes so far over the top, it circumnavigates the top and doubles back on itself; it's the Mobius Strip of over-the-topness. I am in awe. It throws in everything but the kitchen sink. Then it throws in the kitchen sink, too, and the combo washer-dryer in the laundry room, while the hero and his wife are having sex on top of it.”
He may as well have been describing Banshee.
The Cinemax series, for the uninitiated, centers on an unnamed man (Antony Starr) who’s just served 15 years in prison for stealing diamonds from a brutal Ukrainian gangster, Mr. Rabbit (Ben Cross). He travels to the small fictional town of Banshee, Pennsylvania, where his ex-partner in crime/love, Anastasia (Ivana Miličević, also of the aforementioned Running Scared), is now married to the town’s district attorney—with two kids—and goes by “Carrie Hopewell.” When the sheriff-to-be is killed, the man assumes his identity, Lucas Hood, and becomes the new Sheriff of Banshee. With the help of Frankie (Frankie Faison), a retired boxer and ex-con, and Job (Hoon Lee), a transgendered computer hacker, he must regulate the town’s local crime lord, a banished Amish fella named Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), while avoiding the hot pursuit of Mr. Rabbit, who’s hell-bent on revenge.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Cinemax? It was a barrier to entry for me as well, since teenage me viewed the pay-cable channel as a haven for horny kids, who’d get their jollies ogling their distinct brand of late-night soft-core sexual soap operas (replete with the fakest-looking sex imaginable). But, with shows Banshee and Strike Back, as well as Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming period drama, The Knick, it’s a new dawn and a new day for the HBO-owned network. It is Skinemax no more (at least before midnight).
The first season of Banshee, meanwhile, was completely outrageous (in a good way). A drug dealer who sold a party of lascivious pretty young things tainted ecstasy is fed to a Rottweiler; Lucas beats the crap out of an MMA fighter-turned-rapist; Lucas cuts off a guy’s ear, and beats the crap out of a motorcycle gang; he flashes back to prison, where he’s tormented by a gay Albino who works for Mr. Rabbit; there are tons of shoot-outs and plenty of hot sex. This is, after all, a show that’s executive produced by Alan Ball, and Banshee comes off like his outrageous HBO series True Blood crossed with The Place Beyond the Pines.
When we left things off in Season 1, Lucas had narrowly avoided being killed by Mr. Rabbit, who was revealed to be Carrie’s father. After being brutally tortured by the evil Ukrainian, including being stabbed viciously in the kidney, Carrie shoots her father—twice—and saves her mystery man.
So, when Season 2 opens, Lucas is still haunted by his torture at the hands of Mr. Rabbit, who is still at large. And, he and Carrie are the subjects of a pending grand jury investigation led by FBI agent Racine (excellent character actor Zeljko Ivanek), which has stripped Lucas of his sheriff’s badge, and alienated Carrie from her family (since her hubby is the DA).
“I understand your mayor recently suffered the misfortune of being blown up,” Racine says. “This town is something else.”
Indeed it is, and before long, things start to fly off the handle. Rebecca Bowman (Lili Simmons), observant Amish girl by day, and MDMA-popping sexaholic by night, witnesses her creepy uncle, Kai Proctor, have rough doggy-style sex with a voluptuous black woman—with the camera homing in on the giant crucifix tattoo on Proctor’s back. Then, we see Mr. Rabbit in the woods crushing a squirrel to death with his bare hands. There’s a cool Fast and the Furious-lite highway robbery sequence involving Lucas’s gang—he, Job, and Carrie—and an armored truck that is spoiled by a sexy, Uzi-packing woman, dressed in all-black, who materializes out of nowhere on a motorcycle and starts showering the heist crew with bullets. She is Nola Longshadow (Odette Annable, stunning), the daughter of Chief Longshadow (Russell Means), owner of a local Native American casino that the crew attempted to rip off. Later on, Lucas picks up Nola at a bar, and the two have some randy, Cinemax-style sex.
Banshee isn’t reinventing the wheel. But unlike, say, Homeland, which no longer makes much sense as a show given the departure of its finest asset (Damian Lewis), this Cinemax series knows it’s crazy. It delights in its trashiness, its pulpiness. There’s lots of crazy violence. There’s lots of crazy sex. There are lots of crazy gunfights. The actors, in particular Starr and Annable, who resemble Michael Fassbender and Megan Fox, respectively, are crazy hot. And Miličević, as Carrie, delivers a gripping turn as the show’s moral compass. So, if you’re freezing your ass off and desperate for something to tune in to now that Breaking Bad has (sadly) left us, you should give this fun lil’ show a whirl.