Review: Banshee 1×1-1×2 (Cinemax)

When a criminal becomes a cop


In the US: Fridays, 10/9c, Cinemax

Once upon a time, TV regarded cops as unimpeachable examples of morality. Whether it was Dragnet in the US or Dixon of Dock Green in the UK, cops did their jobs, stuck to the rules and never did anything bad.

Times changed, of course, albeit slowly. When writer GF Newman was pitching ideas to the script editor of Z Cars in the 70s, he suggested that one of the detectives be offered a bribe – and that the detective accept it. Newman was told: “Maybe this isn’t the show for you.” The script editor was right, because Newman went off and created his own show, the ground-breaking Law and Order (no, not that one), which depicted cops as corrupt, willing to bend and even break the law, and sometimes little more than criminals with badges.

This ambiguity continued through the 70s in the UK and into the 90s with the likes of Between The Lines all the way through to the present day with Luther.

In the US, while pretty much every cop show from the 80s onwards showed police who were ‘mavericks who didn’t play by the rules’, the police largely stuck to the rules. But again times changed, giving us first The Wire and then eventually The Shield, in which the corrupt cops committed almost as many crimes as the criminals they were supposed to be investigating.

Cinemax’s new show, Banshee, however, goes one further. All the shows I’ve mentioned are about cops who become criminals. But what if a criminal became a cop?

The show, exec produced by True Blood‘s Alan Ball, sees Lucas Hood (Antony Starr), one of the most notorious thieves in the US, get out of jail after a 15-year sentence for a diamond robbery. When he goes looking for his share of the diamonds from his former girlfriend and partner Anastasia Hopewell (Ivana Miličević), he ends up in the ultra-corrupt Pennsylvania town of Banshee, which coincidentally is expecting a new sheriff. When the sheriff is killed in a fight, Hood assumes his identity and becomes the new sheriff of Banshee, so that he can win Hopewell back, watch over the daughter he never knew he had and earn some money in the process, all while trying to evade Mr Rabbit (Ben Cross), a New York crime boss and Hopewell’s father, who’s been looking for her for 15 years.

Anyway, as you might expect, Hood uses criminal methods to do his job and the result is… interesting. Here’s a trailer.

From the creator of ‘True Blood,’ ‘Banshee’ stars Antony Starr as Lucas Hood, an ex-con and master thief who assumes the identity of the sheriff of Banshee, Pennsylvania, where he continues his criminal activities, even as he’s hunted by the shadowy gangsters he betrayed years earlier.

Is it any good?
Surprisingly, it is actually pretty good and one to consider watching.

Cinemax – skin-e-max to its friends – is busily trying to build up its original content with shows like Strike Back, The Transporter and now Banshee. So far, this content makes Cinemax look like a halfway house between Starz and Showtime, having the nudity, sex, action and nails-on-blackboard dialogue of Starz shows combined with the loftier narrative ambitions and bigger budgets of Showtime.

Banshee goes one further and actually has better writing than those other two shows, focusing more on drama and character than the other two. Although it still contains decent fight scenes (not quite Strike Back‘s quality, mind), bombastic explosions, plenty of (mostly female) nudity and sex, this is a show with loftier ambitions, asking interesting questions about the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in law enforcement – we know the sheriff is a criminal but his actions in enforcing the law are no worse than we’ve seen in 24 and other shows, so is it purely the intent behind those actions that determines whether they’re right or wrong?

It also gives us a range of flamboyant characters. While there are some there just to make up the numbers, Miličević’s master criminal turned kickboxing housewife is an unusual twist, more than capable of handling herself in a fight yet largely concerned with her children than her former ‘career’. The town’s chief criminal is a former member of the Amish, who feature strongly – yes, there are references to Witness – and are shown to be a little more than the period-dressing, German-speaking godbotherers of popular belief. He has some very specific sexual hang-ups as a result of his upbringing, as does the way he manages the town. In addition, Ben Cross follows on from Dexter‘s Ray Stevenson by giving us another Ukrainian mobster played by an Englishman to sinister effect, and on top of that, there’s a gay, transvestite Korean hacker fashionista.

While the first episode’s car chase shootout was a little over the top and the show’s fight scenes are almost as sadistic as the action in The Following, they are well executed and lead to more logical conclusions than in most TV fight scenes (e.g. death, crippling, etc). They’re also used to illustrate character and further plot, with Hood’s expediency very different from that expected of a sheriff.

So far, we’ve really yet to see Hood’s game-plan but the show is compelling enough that you’re willing to wait. While it’s no instant television classic, it’s a touch ludicrous in places, it’s got more than a hint of B-movie about it and it’s ambitions are perhaps higher than its ability to execute, this is definitely a cut above the standard dross we’ve been offered in the 2012-13 season.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.