Cinemax, like so many other cable channels getting lost in the glut of options, has begun trying to forge a distinct identity with original series. Hey, it has worked very well indeed for AMC, once primarily known for movies, like Cinemax, and now known for creating some of the best series on TV. You can’t blame them.
With “Strike Back” and, beginning Friday night, “Banshee,” the HBO-owned Cinemax — also known for its late-night softcore programming — appears to be staking a claim for the B-movie-styled action-series niche. And “Banshee,” like “Strike Back,” isn’t half bad. The show doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what it is — a violent, sexy, somewhat cheesy, but generally entertaining genre drama — and that makes it easier to like. Created by Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler, both fiction writers, and executive produced by Alan Ball, “Banshee” probably won’t be Cinemax’s big breakthrough series, the one that gets enough buzz to draw big viewership numbers and maybe even acclaim; but it certainly may develop a satisfied following.
The show is built around New Zealand actor Antony Starr, who is a darker version — visually and temperamentally — of Scott Speedman in “Last Resort.” Starr, with his moody eyes and rare smile, plays a newly released convict named Lucas Hood who travels to Banshee, Pa., to find his old girlfriend and partner in crime. It has been 15 years, and Carrie (Ivana Mili-cevic) is not happy to see him; she has taken on a new identity, gotten married, and had children. And how old are those children again? Starr is just charismatic and distinctive enough to keep you engaged in Lucas’s emotional life, as well as his action moves.
But of course, if Lucas leaves there will be no show. And it just so happens that the brand new sheriff of Banshee, whom no one has met and who is from the West Coast, is killed by some local thugs. So Lucas takes the job, and the dead sheriff’s identity, and no one, except Carrie and a Banshee bartender who likes Lucas, is the wiser. Now he can keep an eye on Carrie, and perhaps avoid the guy he stole diamonds from back in the old days, a Ukrainian mobster named Rabbit (played by a creepy Ben Cross). Yeah, his past is trying to catch up with him, while he’s trying to catch up with Carrie.
In the meantime, Lucas will go up against the local crime boss, Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), who is ensconced in the Amish community. The show, which premieres at 10 p.m., is set up deftly with both a long-term arc involving Rabbit, and then scraps-of-the-week with the Banshee bad guys led by Proctor. All the pieces are in place for weeks of shootings, with some lovemaking on the side, Cinemax style.