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How Banshee Became One of Television’s Best Series

How Banshee Became One of Television’s Best Series

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Opening remarks

It’s not even February and, already, 2014 is shaping up to be a massive year for television. True Detective announced itself as the year’s first new stand-out series. Against all odds, Dan Harmon and Community returned and are putting together a respectable comeback season. FX’s fantastic and hard-working Justified continues to solidify its place among the greats of the past decade. And Girls‘ unique blend of comedy and drama is once again pushing the narrative boundaries of the half-hour series in its third season.

One series, though, is leading the charge at the beginning of the year. The most unlikely of heroes, Cinemax’s Banshee, in just a matter of three weeks, has matured into something truly special – something a lot of TV writers refer to as “appointment viewing” when describing other series. With limited experience dabbling in co-produced original programming, Cinemax released Banshee – its first solo endeavor – this time last year. Created by Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler, the series follows an ex-con who is on a mission to take back the life he once led as a conman (this, of course, includes the woman he was partnered and romantically involved with). When he arrives in the town of Banshee, achieving that goal ends up being a little more difficult than expected. In a scattershot series of events, the man winds up taking the identity of the new, incoming sheriff of Banshee, Lucas Hood, who ends up being killed by thugs in the first episode.

The pilot, in all honesty, didn’t impress me because of how much it felt like it was trying to impress me (there’s a semi-truck sequence that still makes me laugh when I think about it). This is a very common experience when it comes to pilots. So I ended up dropping Banshee in favor of the myriad other mid-season newcomers that plague critics’ nights in January each year. After returning to the series a few weeks later during an evening off, I was completely taken aback by how wrong my impressions wound up being. As it finished up its first season, Banshee became less of a guilty pleasure and more of an underdog that I could unashamedly root for. Now, in its sophomore season and behind Greg Yaitanes, it’s making my mouth use muscles I didn’t know it had in order to form the grin that occupies my face the entire time I’m watching a new episode. Public outcry is now a necessity. Why aren’t more people talking about Banshee?, I asked in last week’s review. In the unfortunately likely event that people just don’t know about it, I’m here to explain just some of the aspects of Banshee that might convince you to give it a chance. It’s all the more appropriate that this article appears after the third episode of the current season, because it was the third episode of its first season that made me reevaluate it. Again, this isn’t just a fun series you can sit down and unwind with (although, it certainly is that, too). For my money, Banshee is outclassing every single program on television at the moment and sets the bar incredibly high for the rest of 2014.

I would like Banshee if I like…

Justified and Spartacus. That seems like an odd pairing, but Banshee extrapolates the strengths of both those series. Justified has run circles around its peers in terms of crafting its world. Harlan County feels like a living, breathing place. There are pockets, like Noble’s Holler, that have their own unique atmosphere and manner of civilian. Recently, Banshee has gone the extra mile in bringing out that aspect, turning Banshee into an incredibly vivid ecosystem (more on this further down). Justified‘s central relationship is built around its hero and anti-hero, Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder. Banshee pits Lucas Hood and Kai Proctor in similar positions, letting them team up only when the common foe threatens them both. The Banshee PD runs into the same kind of morally and physically tough situations that the marshal services, under Art, have to claw their way through. Maybe Justified does this more methodically, but both series know exactly when to pull the trigger and when to keep the gun holstered.

Banshee, being from a premium cable network, shares its more…stylistic…aspects with Starz’ Spartacus. Yes, that means lots of action and lots of nudity. But both series circumvent being salacious by having those scenes serve a higher purpose. With Spartacus, the gratuity often gave an honest and sometimes touching portrayal of the emotional connection between two characters in a physical setting. If Banshee doesn’t do the same, then it is because it attempts and succeeds to fire on the artistic level. Take, for instance, the cold open to the second episode of the current season. On the basest of descriptions, it is a masturbation scene featuring one of the central female characters. However, the scene manages to do more storytelling visually than the average series does during a scene of dialog. Spartacus excelled at crafting interesting characters and engaging plots in spite of its “pornographic” (haters’ word, not mine) transitions between more weighty parts of the scripts. If anything, Banshee avoids treating those sequences as transitions and, instead, manages to find a way of turning them into necessary parts of episodes – pieces of a montage, for instance, such as the one that closes out the most recent episode in which three storylines coalesce into a central theme of disconnectedness and how different characters cope with that.

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Banshee‘s strong female characters

Not since Battlestar Galactica has there been a collection of female characters as fully realized or independently strong. Rebecca, Proctor’s niece, might be the most interesting of the bunch going forward (while some characters on Banshee essentially becomes different versions of themselves as the series progresses, Rebecca goes through the largest transformation, giving her character development longer legs). Yet, “The Thunder Man” – the second episode of this season – takes two of Banshee‘s mainstays, Anastasia and Siobhan, and lets them take over the thrust of the story completely, cutting between both of their stories in the episode’s two most pivotal moments.

Siobhan, especially, dominates “The Thunder Man” in a way that is uncommon in ensemble series like Banshee. Five seasons in and we’ve been given very minimal, meaningful material as far as Rachel on Justified is concerned. In less than an hour, Banshee manages to create a story for Siobhan that blows through what might have been a season’s worth of story on another series. It’s easy to forget these kinds of secondary characters when they’re mostly there to bounce off the main character(s), but Siobhan has carved a wonderfully brutal space for herself, seeing what she wants (and who she wants) and taking it. Anyone who has seen the first season of Banshee won’t need to be convinced that Anastasia, too, is the definition of “strong female character.” Her battle with Olek gives every Hood-centric fight a run for its money and manages to bring emotional weight to every blow rather than just being a fight where a protagonist is up against an antagonist.

The biggest credit to how physically and emotionally capable the female characters on Banshee are is how it goes against network expectations. Historically, Starz and Cinemax have a certain kind of brand that leans well in favor of the masculine side of things. And, admittedly, there were times in its first season in which I thought the portrayal of the female body was done in a way that coincided with those connotations people have regarding Cinemax. It wasn’t quite objectification, but a lot of those scenes weren’t really necessary or functional other than for purely visual pleasure. That has been completely reversed as Banshee has gone on and when one of the actresses is required to bear her all, it’s because the character has made that decision, not because she’s been forced into appeasing viewers. The camera shows respect worthy of admiration when it comes to characters like Anastasia, Rebecca and Siobhan, where a lesser creative team might not bother to provide that amount of class.

Banshee‘s command and subversion of genre

Banshee is a self-proclaimed example of pulp fiction. The team behind it, including the actors, will admit to that without any shame. And while I absolutely love and appreciate that owning of the show’s identity, I would go a step further for fear of anyone writing off Banshee as being pulpy to the point of being shallow. Instead, I would classify Banshee as something akin to a live-action series of graphic novels. It pops in the same way that Arrow on The CW does, possessing its own unique visual aesthetics and refined color palette that bring to mind some of the great artists who make comic book panels stand out in spectacular ways.

More than that, Banshee possesses a comic book storytelling sensibility. Much like the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is always a post-credits teaser in a Banshee episode. The conflict in the series, too, is straight out of something like Batman. Lucas Hood doesn’t possess superpowers. Yet, he goes toe-to-toe, fist-to-face with these larger-than-life villains that are clearly people he ought not to mess with for his health’s sake. His idealism forces him into those bouts, though, and it’s Sugar who highlights Hood’s superhero-like motivations in the most recent episode – Hood might not be the best of people on paper, but he does the right thing based on his brand of standards and that has accrued him very loyal allies. Proctor is to Hood as The Joker is to Batman, two opposing forces that are destined to battle for eternity, one incapable of permanently getting rid of the other.

Banshee takes all these ideas and stylistic tics and executes them perfectly, much like how Arrow brings its comic book world to life, but then manages to elevate the material beyond that context. Yes, we can identify Hood as a hero and Proctor as a villain and we can view action pieces as unbelievable or over-the-top, but Banshee has been toying with those definitions and classifications so much that the nuances of these personalities fall more in line with the layered characters of Mad Men and Breaking Bad and that those times when Banshee embraces its pulpy roots, the viewer doesn’t lean back and raise an eyebrow. Instead, she leans in with focus because of how important the action is to what the story is trying to say overall. The physical battles become battles of beliefs embodied in the characters carrying out those beliefs. This is what the best, most transcendent comic book-like adaptations do (Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy comes to mind, as does X-Men: First Class, with all its chaotic motivations pulling people in different directions, testing them).

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The man with no name

At the center of it all, Lucas Hood joins the storied tradition of identities in crisis. Like Spartacus on his Starz series, the man we know as Hood is not actually named Lucas Hood. And like Spartacus, it’s not important that we do know his name, because Hood can function as an idea just as easily as a person. Hood represents everything that Banshee has to say. Hood is about taking the hand dealt to you in life and working with it as best as you can. Hood is about containing a troubled past so that you can attempt to live out a better future. Hood is about embracing that past when the time is right. Hood is about erasing the things you don’t like about your life and creating something you’re more comfortable with. Hood is, if anything, kicking ass and – quite literally – taking names.

He’s a terrible sheriff. That he hasn’t been thrown back in jail for his copious violations requires the most suspension of disbelief the series asks of its viewer. But he carries out his own version of justice – one that feels more right in the moment, even if people stand to suffer through the repercussions. If Hood doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, he at least makes his thought process known, courtesy of Antony Starr’s fantastic facial acting. Maybe Hood comes across as someone who is clearly bigger and stronger than him but who also needs to be handcuffed. Just watching his face, you can almost hear “Okay, here’s how I’m going to do this…wait, nope…screw it,” followed by a sucker punch. This is how Hood operates. It’s probably not a strategy that’s good in the long run, but it’s the one that works for him and gives Banshee so much of its charisma. Hood might try to do too much of the work himself, fighting other people’s battles or not letting anyone fight his, but he’s slowly coming around to the idea of family and community and how those things can be used to his benefit. At some point, we’ll see him drinking just for fun, not as a coping device. Until that time, Hood remains the mysterious main character of Banshee – an enigma who is more interesting in his standoffishness than annoying because of it.

The performances in Banshee

Hood wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if Antony Starr wasn’t the guy portraying him. Everything about Starr’s physicality makes the fight scenes completely believable. The way he carries himself as if he’s constantly on the brink of lashing out at the next person who stops to say something to him gives Hood that explosive quality. The other half of it is that Starr might do emotional stuff even better. Hood lives in a perpetual state of post-Anastasia, and that emptiness is always a part of Starr’s performance, especially when he’s on-screen with a woman. They’re all distractions, and Starr communicates that by being in his own little world, sometimes amused by the things that go on in the town.

Kai Proctor, Banshee‘s second man, is no less important and Ulrich Thomsen commands every single scene he’s in. He, too, always feels like he could snap a man’s neck at any given moment, but Thomsen uses restraint and sardonic wit to exert Proctor’s power over the characters he interacts with. Not as physically built to intimidate as Starr, Thomsen is still an imposing presence because of the relentless training Proctor goes through in his downtime. When Starr and Thomsen finally throw down in the back half of the first season, it’s deliciously surprising how much the two stand as equals. Always at his side is Matthew Rauch as Clay Burton, a wonderful take on Elijah Wood’s character in Sin City. Burton is there to do the dirty work, and Rauch does the blank roboticness as well as anyone. I’m sure Rauch is as nice as they come, but I can’t imagine ever meeting him and not feeling completely on-edge.

Matt ServittoDemetrius Grosse and Trieste Kelly Dunn play Hood’s supporting deputies. As stated, Dunn has just taken it to the next level – “The Thunder Man” is the kind of performance you submit for Emmy consideration. Servitto initially got to be the nagging voice following Hood around, but both he and Grosse’s characters, Brock and Emmett, have really started to feel like part of the team. There’s turmoil, sure, but the chemistry here is wonderful. I’m waiting to see Grosse get some more meaty material, but being another person in Siobhan’s corner, ready and willing to protect the people he cares about, is still satisfying enough for Emmett at the moment.

Frankie Faison and breakout star Hoon Lee get to be on either side of Hood as his sidekicks, Sugar and Job. The banter between Faison and Lee is the best of what little lightheartedness we get in Banshee. Sugar is probably the character that is closest to being caricature, relegated to the role of wise veteran who tells it straight to people, but Faison makes the material sing. I’m waiting for Hood to get so drunk at the bar that Sugar has to box him to get him to sleep, but until then, giving him the occasional job to take part in is good enough. Lee’s natural charisma is unfairly high. And despite how infrequent we see Job, Lee churns out memorable performance after memorable performance while playing Banshee‘s progressive and important transvestite role.

Ivana Milicevic, Anastasia, brings to mind Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor and Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. There is nothing easy about the life Anastasia leads, always looking over her shoulder for the past that haunts her. Milicevic did the physical acting perfectly to begin with when Anastasia was meeting up with her trainer to stay sharp, but now her presence is as big as anyone else’s on Banshee – no one wants to meet in her in a fight. Piled on top of that is all the stuff relating to Ana’s new family, played by Rus BlackwellRyann Shane and Gabriel Suttle. Milicevic somehow manages to pull off making Ana let Blackwell’s Gordon think he’s anchoring the family when the reality is the opposite. She plays the protective, loving and – now – ostracized mother with utter believability.

Banshee‘s villains have all been spectacular, but Ben Cross stands out with Anthony Ruivivar and Odette Annable‘s Kinaho representatives. Cross plays Rabbit, a Ukrainian gangster tied to both Hood and Anastasia. The material is stuff that Cross just sinks his teeth into, giving us the same kind of evil villain we get in those classic comic book series. The Longshadow siblings are less outwardly evil, but the performances here are just as important. Ruivivar always seems in over his head when going up against Thomsen’s Proctor, but that’s just the kind of guy Alex is, acting before thinking, just like several other of Banshee‘s characters. Annable’s Nola is there to keep him in line, though, and she joins the rest of the actresses in ass-kicking roles. Much more the femme fatale, just how dangerous Nola actually is is kept quiet by Annable’s impressive exercise in control.

And, finally, I’m becoming more and more convinced that the so-beautiful-it-hurts Lili Simmons has been given Banshee‘s most important role in Rebecca. The journey from curious/rebellious Amish youth to being taken in under the wing of Uncle Kai has so much narrative propulsion that Rebecca could just as easily have been the main character of this series. Simmons does the role complete justice by playing each side of Rebecca with same amount of care, whether that’s trying to lure Hood in to live out some of her girlhood fantasies or assisting Proctor with his business, leaning the ropes as she goes along. She isn’t as lethal as some of the other female characters yet, but that’s exactly where Rebecca is going. Simmons is the one to watch, and if you haven’t seen her in True Detective yet, do so.

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The history and geography of the town of Banshee

In a stroke of genius, Banshee recently drew on no one less than Bill Shakespeare to create an us versus them conflict between two factions via Banshee’s Amish community and the Kinaho tribe. The Romeo and Juliet figures enter into the story missing and dead, respectively, but it creates the same kind of Montague/Capulet divide that you’ve seen in the likes of West Side Story and other spiritual adaptations. This history has always been in the background of the series to this point, which makes the direction towards it feel completely natural, like “Yeah, of course this would be a story; I can’t believe this hasn’t happened already.” Oftentimes in Sons of Anarchy, Kurt Sutter would eschew the townsfolk of Charming in favor of his ragtag group of biker outlaws. Banshee sets aside time for its peripheral characters, expanding the conflict well outside of the small group of people we follow and into the larger context of the town itself. There is the potential for all-out war here, and that is being made very clear because of how convincingly bad the blood is between the Kinaho and anyone that has treated them poorly in the past.

On top of that, Banshee itself feels real. You can see the streets and the shops in the downtown area. You get a sense of the large, empty spaces that surround the pockets of civilization. You feel like you could drive over to Sugar’s place on a Friday night after working a full shift at Proctor’s meat factory. It’s amazing how expansive Banshee is considering how isolated it actually is as a backwater town with hints of potential development. Proctor is the man who is pushing that expansion even though people keep getting in the way. But, considering the gang-like conflict and how that is going to have to use up most of Banshee’s population, I can’t imagine it staying this small forever. There couldn’t be a more exciting prospect, either.

Choreography and why Banshee‘s hand-to-hand combat is second to none

Second. To. None. Banshee might not have the budget to do big explosions and extended, destructive gun fights and car chases all the time. But it doesn’t need to because of how well it handles its hand-to-hand combat. This is the stuff of legend, more impressive than any film or television series I have ever seen. Hood versus the albino. Hood versus the MMA fighter. Anastasia versus Olek. Siobhan versus her ex. Hood versus Proctor. These fights redefine “epic” in ways that you can’t understand until you’ve seen them. The viewer feels every blow, bite and bat that gets thrown at these people. The fights demand attention in ways where you forget you’re breathing and in ways that can physically hurt you because of how immersive they are. As someone who writes about television, it’s hard to pick and choose what concepts and which people to bring up when crediting episodes on a week-to-week basis. The choreography team behind Banshee‘s fights, though, is the clear winner every time they’re given a task. Give them every award ever made, because the hard work that goes into these scenes pay off in dividends, as they easily make their way into the upper echelons of TV moments of the year. I absolutely fear what’s going to happen when Hood and Chayton meet up again.

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Why being “fun” television matters in 2014

Banshee also fulfills the often undervalued quality of being “fun.” Thankfully, in recent years, the negative connotation applied to that word regarding TV series has diminished and diminished. It used to be that shows were either serious or fun. Rarely would something step into the center of that Venn diagram. Now, critics are finding and championing “fun” series, like Orphan Black and Arrow. It helps that those series are just as intelligent and well-produced as your average “prestige” drama, but the shift in critical praise is welcome and noteworthy nonetheless. Banshee is the poster child for that series that is both objectively good – high and stylized production values, storytelling that is taken seriously, compelling and complicated characters – and uniformly entertaining. It packs an emotional wallop while being so viscerally engaging that you’re bound to realize your jaw just dropped on the floor. It gives you moments in which you have personal stakes because it gives you characters you can genuinely root for or against. I don’t want to take anything away from another series, but just as an example: as I was watching Masters of Sex play out its first season a few months ago, I thought something like “Yes, this is very good television, there’s no arguing that. But do I really enjoy this?” That’s the easiest question to answer when it comes to Banshee, because during every second – from cold open to teaser – the answer is an emphatic yes.

Closing remarks

The more I watch television, the more I worry that I’m becoming cynical. There are times when I’m following over 30 series week-to-week (I get out, don’t worry), so it’s easy to build up what I’d like to call an “Impress Me Wall.” The Impress Me Wall unfairly puts shows in a position where they have to immediately stand out to earn the nod of approval. Why this is so counter-intuitive is because it puts the viewer in a passive role. The viewing experience is done from a detached perspective in which its up to the series to bridge that gap and connect to the person watching it. The right way to watch things is by being an active viewer – to tune in to what a show is trying to do, to view it on that basis and wavelength and to judge it based on the criteria it sets up for itself. I sat down to Banshee‘s pilot with my Impress Me Wall all the way up and fortified. That, initially, was my mistake (“This isn’t the next Breaking Bad. Next.”). It might be asking too much of viewers to do all of the work all of the time, but if everyone sat down with Impress Me Walls up, too many things would get overlooked. If everyone had walked away from Banshee after one episode, no one would have seen it grow into what it is now – a series that looks up at an Impress Me Wall with a shit-eating grin and proceeds to tear it down, brick-by-brick, with its bare fists.

Banshee airs Friday nights at 10 on Cinemax. Check in here at Sound On Sight for my weekly reviews of its second season.

Sean Colletti