Cinemax's new action-drama series, Banshee, aims to capitalize on the minor triumph of the cable network's Strike Back by delivering a sparingly entertaining ex-con-impersonates-a-sheriff revenge tale that utilizes True Blood creator Alan Ball's fertile sexy-meets-gory expertise to supplement the material's lack of humanism. Dark and cheerless, with a blurred shaky-cam aesthetic that makes even the pastoral Amish countryside of Pennsylvania appear thoroughly Hollywood-ized, Banshee, much like its short-tempered antihero (played by Antony Starr, doing his best hard-edged Bradley Cooper imitation), suffers from an identity crisis. Introducing stray plotlines and ancillary characters at an accelerated pace, long before much a solidified central arc is cemented, this violent fable feels like a cadaver being pulled in a dozen different directions.
Starr's nameless ex-con, who commandeers the identity of an abruptly slain lawman, Lucas Hood, to tie up some loose ends from his former life of crime, is largely underdeveloped, and his foolhardy quest to reconnect with his prior partner in both thievery and love is devoid of any authentic emotion. Starr's shady, unshaven modern warrior is all gruff glances and smart-assed retorts, instigating brawls with lowlifes in dingy PA locales for no particular reason other than to announce himself as the alpha male in a tiny town seemingly filled with tons of immoral hooligans who have nothing to lose. How readily Hood's farfetched ruse is bought by the dimwitted Banshee Sheriff's Department, comically operating out of a rundown Cadillac dealership, is indicative of the writers' unimaginative, tonally inconsistent plotting.
The fact that Banshee takes so long to reveal its ultimate Big Bad, the mysterious Rabbit (Ben Cross), is somewhat forgivable, as multiple color-filtered flashbacks illustrating the diamond heist that landed Starr's "master" thief in the slammer slowly build tension for the characters' inevitable bloody reunion. In a moderately interesting deviation from the norm, the series spends the majority of its early episodes delving into the mad quirks of a more widely appealing secondary antagonist, Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), whose devious mitts orchestrate the fate of Banshee's underground dealings. The character is one of the show's most amusing diversions. He has a soft spot for the Amish community (his estranged father is among them), as well as a fetish for bedding prostitutes donning Amish garb, and his unrelenting volatility results in some of Banshee's tensest, grisliest moments, though they're too few and far between.
Where Banshee routinely excels is during its kinetic action sequences, which range from a well-staged car chase/shootout in the streets of Manhattan to a gruesome barroom melee that includes a couple of impalings, a bullet hole through a hand, and a bottle of steak sauce shoved down an unfortunate assailant's throat. These scenes all take place in the confines of the patchy pilot episode, and work as absorbing stopgaps between passages of odd dramatic meandering.
The series slides into banal case-of-the-week territory with a barnhouse rave that has kids dropping dead from a tainted batch of Proctor's designer narcotics, all the while drawing Hood closer to his former lover, who now has a husband, two children, and goes by the name Carrie Hopewell (Ivana Milicevic). Even Carrie's angst-ridden teenage daughter, Deva (Ryann Shane), quickly becomes more developed than Hood, evolving from a snotty stereotype to a vulnerable, humane character who provides some much-needed depth to the proceedings when her boyfriend suddenly collapses from an overdose. The scene in which Deva is left buried beneath the ravers' glowsticks and waving arms, screaming at the top of her lungs for help, is demonstrative of Banshee as a whole: neither a clear message nor steady mood can be properly discerned amid the taxing commotion.