The pilot episode of Cinemax's new drama Banshee, which premieres tonight on the cable network, is a fine introduction to its world. The main protagonist, who appears to have Batman's ability to appear at will, is aided by a hairdresser who can cook up new identities and likes explosives. And that’s all before we arrive in the titular town of Banshee, Pennsylvania.
Once there, the nameless protagonist, whom we learn has spent 15 years in prison for a diamond heist, meets incoming Sheriff Lucas Hood at the bar of washed up-boxer Sugar Bates (The Wire's Frankie Faison). The bar is robbed, and in the ensuing gun fight, the protagonist kills the criminals with expert skill and Hood ends up shot to death. After the thief and Sugar round up the bodies, Hood's phone rings. In answering it, the ex-con assumes the sheriff's identity and agrees to meet with the mayor the next day.
That protagonist, whom we'll call "Hood,” is played by New Zealand actor Antony Starr, who has the presence required to anchor a series like this. When he first appeared on screen, I thought he was Ray Stevenson of Rome fame. Like that actor, Starr has curiously sensitive blue eyes surrounded by screen steel and stubble. He also quickly establishes himself as someone you want to follow week after week, a key element to making a series like Banshee work.
The tone of the drama is, to coin a genre, hyper-boiled. It’s filled with lowlifes, criminals and compromised people, but it's all pushed to such an over-the-top, hyper-real level that even at its most ridiculous, it manages to be compelling (it perhaps then should come as no surprise it was developed by True Blood creator Alan Ball). Such is the case of the primary antagonist Kai Proctor (Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen). I've debated whether to reveal the curious and awesome twist on Banshee's local organized crime chieftain, but part of the thrill of the pilot is the slow reveal of Proctor's damage. When we meet him in Sugar's bar, he immediately comes off as an usual TV presence. It's not just Thomsen's wavering accent, which actually lends a great deal of authenticity to his character once you know the truth, but his rapport with Sugar signals he may not be the garden-variety mobster.
After the truth is revealed, we get to spend a few moments. with Proctor and they're some of the most riveting scenes in the whole episode. If for no other reason, Banshee is worth watching for the lead-up to the following Proctor line: "Now put your teeth back into your mouth and get out of here."
As this is a premium-cable show, there is some nudity and sex, although, perhaps, not as much as you'd expect considering Cinemax's reputation. The violence is also metered out carefully, but it's quick, shocking and inventive in every case.
In between the violence and sex, we also meet some other Banshee citizens who will clearly matter in subsequent episodes. Ivana Milicevic plays Carrie Hopewell, who in a previous life, was Hood's girlfriend and accomplice. He comes to town hoping to get his cut of the diamond heist, but she tells him she got conned out of the stash. Somewhere along the way, she married Gus Hopewell (Rus Blackwell), who’s clueless to her past and takes an immediate shine to the new sheriff. We also meet the young mayor, a sheriff's deputy who expected to get the top job and a Russian hit man tasked with finding Hood, Carrie and the diamonds.
Special mention should be made of Hoon Lee and his flamboyant hairdresser/security man Job. I wasn't sure what to expect when he first appeared in a yellow-striped, slicked-back mohawk wig. However, he quickly overcomes any stereotyping when he uses those very same assumptions to pull one over on the Russians. A quick check of IMDb shows he will be in subsequent episodes; hopefully, he sets up a salon in Banshee.
And really, the collection of compelling characters make Banshee a series worth checking out and, perhaps, loving as time goes on. With the pilot episode, they hit a critical mass of people I want to know more about. I want to see how Hood and Proctor eventually come to blows. I want to see what happens when Carrie's past is revealed. Generating that sort of interest level makes for a satisfying and compelling pilot.
Banshee premieres tonight at 10 ET/PT on Cinemax.