The presence of Banshee in the schedules of the prestige-minded Sky Atlantic may give some viewers pause, especially considering its US home is HBO’s exploitation offshoot Cinemax – playfully dubbed ‘Skinemax’ for its preference for lurid plotlines and soft-core sex scenes. But while the opening scene of last night’s season two opener features sex, a brutal fight and lingering close-ups of bloody wounds, there’s also a big heart and a clutch of complex, moving characters hidden within this hyperactive pulp thriller.
A commendably understated Antony Starr plays a nameless ex-con who blows into the eponymous Pennsylvanian town and assumes the identity of Lucas Hood, the town’s recently murdered sheriff, in order to reconnect with his ex-partner Ana (Ivana Miličević), only to find that she has changed her name and settled down to the quiet life with an oblivious husband and family.
What makes this admittedly ludicrous premise work is that the show never tries to take itself too seriously. Hood brazenly flaunts the law, using his new position to pull-off a poorly-executed heist on an armoured truck. At the same time, he also manages to do some good in the community, making up for his sketchy knowledge of police procedures with sharp criminal instincts and a two-fisted approach to law enforcement that proves surprisingly effective, especially in a town apparently over-populated with colourful, off-kilter villains.
Season one alone saw Hood face vicious encounters with excommunicated slaughterhouse owner Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), a horny MMA fighter, a prison albino, and a Ukrainian crime lord hell-bent on vengeance for a supposed betrayal 15 years earlier.
The first episode picks up the pieces from the bullet-spliced carnage that closed season one, essentially acting as a recount of the last episode’s remarkably high body count via the regular stream of flashbacks Hood endures while recovering from his nightmare ordeal.
It’s testament to the taut, intelligent writing of David Schickler and Jonathan Tropper that an episode where little happens remains utterly gripping, raising the threat of Hood being caught by introducing a cancer-riddled FBI agent (Zeijko Ivanek) making one final play for Hood’s old boss, Ukrainian gangster Rabbit (Ben Cross).
Banshee knows it’s a glossy, trashy piece of pulp television and gleefully sticks two fingers up to the more respected, laconic dramas like True Detective and The Honourable Woman, but it’s not without its subtle moments. Both former novelists, Schickler and Tropper are skilled at producing tightly plotted episodes built around complex relationships. One of the most moving storylines in season two focuses on Ana as she desperately tries to rebuild the family life she destroyed with revelations about her past, while Rebecca Proctor’s (Lili Simmons) arc becomes more unsettling by the episode as she falls further under her uncle’s influence in a dangerous compromise between being a woman free to make her own choices and a child who wants to be loved by her family.
Yes, Banshee is lurid, punishingly violent and often knowingly silly, but it also has some thoroughly intriguing characters and a strong grasp of story, at one point shifting seamlessly from a quiet moment of reflection to a viscerally stunning high-speed heist, that makes it oddly compelling and enormously enjoyable.
Click here to watch the trailer for Banshee, Season Two