'Banshee' Season Premiere Review: Making 'Edgy' Mean Something New

BANSHEE episode 21 (season 3, episode 1): Antony Starr. photo: Gregory Shummon/courtesy of Cinemax

Heaven knows I’m as sick as you are of TV shows that equate violence and brooding, and "dark,” “edgy" characters with daring, cutting-edge stuff. I, too, want fewer shows that take Breaking Bad or The Sopranos as their inspiration, because no one is going to top those series, and we tend to end up with junk like Stalker.

But the funny thing about pop culture is, no matter how much you think a certain genre has been exhausted, some creative people come along and revitalize it. So it is with Banshee, which begins its third season on Cinemax tonight. Banshee, created by Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler, is fantastic in a couple of senses: It’s really good, and sometimes almost unbelievable in its intensity.

If you’ve yet to get into it, Banshee is the story of an ex-con played by Antony Starr who assumes the identity of Lucas Hood, who at the start of the series was the new-guy-in-town sheriff of Banshee, Pennsylvania. In this little Amish community, he reunites with a fellow criminal and former lover who’s also assumed a new identity as Carrie, a demure wife and mother (Ivana Milicevic). There are a couple of big bad villains that have dominated each season, most notably Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), a ruthless businessman who’s alienated his own Amish community but attracted the way-inappropriate affection of his niece, Rebecca (Lili Simmons). If you’re ready to say ewwww, go ahead — but I’ve only scratched the surface of Banshee’s gleeful inappropriateness.

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Tonight’s season premiere takes the Big Bad concept mighty literally, in the form of Chayton Littlestone (Geno Segers), a mountainous, murderous, muscle-bound, arrow-shooting member of the local Kinaho tribe. (Banshee may be a small town, but it does boast a gratifying amount of religious/ethnic diversity.) Chayton and Kai, no allies, wreak a lot of havoc for Hood and his deputies. Hood, meanwhile, is not a good-guy himself—he’s still a thief in sheriff’s clothing, and this season, he’s looking to rob guns and money from an evil Marine leader played by Langley Kirkwood, because, now wouldn’t you know it, there’s a Marine black-ops hotspot right outside of little Banshee?

I know, it sounds crazy, and the great thing is, Banshee implicitly acknowledges its craziness regularly. Hood and Carrie and their criminal pals played by Hoon Lee (portraying—and the Cinemax press release says it better than I could--"a dangerous transvestite computer hacker") and The Wire’s Frankie Faison engage in a lot of fast-paced insult humor that gets information across with clever quickness. The show also expresses its craziness in matters of style: Many scenes are shot in a series of quick jump-cuts, a film-editing metaphor for the fact that any hour-long script is so packed with plot and action that everything needs to be sped up.

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But the primary way Banshee expresses the notion that the world is an irrational place is in its action sequences, some of which can rank among the most witty, intricately choreographed scenes of violence I’ve ever witnessed on TV or in the movies.

Indeed, there’s a sequence in the new season’s third episode that’s one of the most extraordinarily staged fight scenes I can think of. It involves two supporting players, both vividly-drawn characters, Proctor’s grim, usually-silent aide Clay Burton (Matthew Rauch) and the "Native American assassin" — again, Cinemax's choice words — Nola Longshadow (Odette Annable). Nola wants to get past Burton to kill Proctor; Burton will, we know from previous episodes, do anything to protect his boss. The scene begins with Nola flinging a hatchet through the air into Burton’s shoulder, and culminates in a vicious fight inside a car. As directed by Magnus Martens, the sequence is tremendously exciting, in part because it’s shot with such clarity: at any given moment, you know exactly what each character is doing, how much pain he or she is in, and understand how a knock-down, drag-out battle like this can end up with one of them doing something awful to the other one’s throat. I’d pause to say that Banshee takes care to make its female characters equal-opportunity pain-inflictors (boy, has Ivana Milicevic’s Carrie unleashed some powerful body-work on various opponents!), but another fine thing about Banshee is that it grants everyone, male or female, big or small, reasons to grasp and seize power.

And I haven’t even mentioned that Denis O’Hare makes a terrific guest-star turn in that episode as an FBI agent who’s also — this is the episode’s title — “A Fixer of Sorts.”

Banshee grapples with questions of identity in ways that are fascinating to ponder. But if you don't want to ponder, just dig the action. If you aren’t watching Banshee, I’d say now’s the time to climb aboard. It’s a show that’s just hitting its stride, and that stride averages about 100 miles an hour.

Banshee premieres Friday, Jan. 9 at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.