Sometimes all it takes to get me hooked on a new obsession is the smallest taste. Tease me with striking visuals, and I’ll make a trip to the comic book store. Whisper me an enticing quote, and I will just-one-more-chapter a book into the small hours of the night. Lure me in with a fascinating character, and I’ll sell my soul to BioWare. This is how I came to know drag queen and hacker-extraordinaire, Job, when a friend who knows my buttons and enables my entertainment addictions introduced me to him in a brief clip from Banshee.
But Banshee isn’t about Job, though Job is unapologetically awesome. It’s about Lucas Hood, played by Antony Starr, who is currently chilling viewers as the despotic Superman with Zack Morris’ face on Amazon Prime’s The Boys. Or rather, Banshee is about a master thief with the mysterious past who, after leaving prison, escaping one of the best chases scenes ever, getting into a bar fight that results in dead bad guys and a dead sheriff, takes the new sheriff’s badge and name and makes himself comfy in the small Pennsylvania town of Banshee, where the love of his life and former partner-in-crime—and daughter of the incredibly dangerous mob boss—Rabbit, is trying to hide from their past. Throw in the threat of Rabbit’s return due to some missing diamonds and a few vendettas, animosity between the various groups residing in and around town and you get a big soup of amazing television.
Banshee was created by Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler, and appeared on the Cinemax network beginning in January of 2013. It ran for four seasons, at which time, Tropper decided that the show’s ludicrous premise had run its course. On the cast, Starr is joined by Ivana Miličević as Anastasia, Hoon Lee as Job, and Frankie Faison as Sugar. Reluctantly drawn back into Hood’s circle, they spend much of the show in conflict with the local kingpin, Kai Proctor, played by Ulrich Thomsen, who has additional issues to deal with as he struggles with the Amish life and family he left behind.
This series is the perfect example of excellent storytelling combined with amazing acting and cinematography. The latter reminds me of some of my favourite Steven Soderbergh scene work, particularly in Out of Sight. Movement is often cut or stuttered, with scenes transitioning almost like panels in a comic book. The way its scenes are intercut and juxtaposed in such meaningful ways that blend the past and the present, the actual and the desired. It’s delivered with such depth of raw emotion, with a strong understanding of the power of silence, or in a lingering glance or touch. The show knows the value of heating a moment with silence, allowing the actors to ground scenes in raw emotion right down to the very last second (read: stay for the end credits).
Unlike Out of Sight, Banshee is not subtle. Or rather, it is subtle in many, many ways, but not when it comes to sex and violence. But unlike the sex and violence in some shows that are typically all about viewer ratings first, neither is about mere titillation here. Every scene in Banshee serves a purpose to advance the story and characters, not just to entertain. This is a bit surprising to me, since Banshee comes from creators of True Blood, a show that felt too often like it only served that purpose, and as a result, left me uninterested in pursuing it. Banshee literally pulls no punches when it comes to its violence, with Lucas Hood at the forefront as a sheriff ready to solve every case with his fists.
These fights are not for the squeamish. They are very realistic and often leave me cringing, not because of the kind of gore that permeates The Boys, for example, but because Banshee’s fights are brutal. They are also true to the characterizations and the style of fighting used by each character is an individual expression. For example, Hood, it’s noted, is clearly a man who has been trained at the military level, but has learned far more. His motivation when he fights is purely about survival and ensuring that his opponents do not return to haunt him.
Taking care of his physical opponents with finality is a trait Hood shares with Homelander, the character Starr now plays in Amazon Prime’s The Boys, though the two characters are vastly different in their motivations and levels of empathy. That Starr can embody both characters so wholly, making me love one and loathe the other, is impressive acting talent. Hood is almost the antithesis of Homelander, and you can easily see, given the right circumstances, how Hood could end up very much involved Butcher’s merry band of supe hunters in The Boys, meting out violence in the name of justice, instead of survival.
In Banshee, Hood isn’t the only one capable of such violence. There are a number of characters who can hold their own, sometimes quite surprisingly, and the show never fails to deliver when it unleashes them. Every scene of fucking up and even of fucking is pivotal. Some of these scenes have managed to bring me in tears because of the heart and soul behind them, which we see even as the blood flies. I particularly love the way many of these fight scenes are shot, sometimes juxtaposed against each other, from various unusual angles. Fight scenes aren’t simply about being really cool fight scenes. They often serve to reveal the depth of characters who have something to fight for. The violence costs them deeply, and victories are always Pyrrhic.
Like Hood, every character has their issues, their vulnerabilities, their strengths. And it is so incredible to see an ensemble cast where everyone is on equal footing, with the women not having to be called out as kick ass GRRL POWER. They simply are, like the men, doing what they have to do in the situations they are given or get themselves into.
In addition to the four seasons of the series, Cinemax offered Banshee Origins, brief vignettes that provide a tiny peek into the history behind the characters, serving to enhance the main plotlines, without taking anything away from viewers who choose not to watch them. More shows need to do origin episodes like this, but only if they understand the power of “less is more” like Banshee does.
Tropper also wrote an origin story comic that was released by IDW Publishing in 2013, which was intended to coincide with the premier. As it turns out, the finale of season two is an almost panel-perfect onscreen translation of the comic, revealing the steps that took Hood to jail. Given the show’s penchant for parceling out details little by little and basking in just enough mystery, I found the comic an unnecessary and even jolting addition. The series never felt like it needed to give context for every single thing, but if you pay attention, it’s easy enough to pull the pieces together over time. The comic serves to tie those pieces into a neat package, but reveals nothing that viewers wouldn’t come to eventually, before having it all unwrapped in the season two finale.
And then there’s the soundtrack. A lot of shows use music to set a scene, and Banshee isn’t unique in that, but my playlist was constantly being updated as I watched the series. Each chosen song seems like it was specifically designed for the scene its attached to, whether it’s soft instrumentals behind a pensive moment, or a painful ballad over a ballad, or heavier baselines punctuating an action scene. But the music isn’t overused, allowing for silence to be just as integral part of these very same scenes. And the music never overpowers.
Obviously, Banshee is pretty high on my favourites list. If you’ve fallen for Starr because of his exquisitely loathsome portrayal of Homelander on The Boys, I recommend a step back a few years to discover his work in Banshee.