The good and bad of Banshee

Last updated 08:37 16/01/2013

It sounds like the setup for a gag: "A guy walks into a bar ...". And that probably would've been the end of my interest in it, except that the guy is Kiwi actor (hunk?) Antony Starr, and his character ended up shagging the bar's waitress before his new show, Banshee, had even hit the minute mark. No joke.

(Warning: this post contains spoilers from last night's Banshee premiere on SoHo*.)

Produced by Alan Ball (True Blood, Six Feet Under), but created by David Schikler and Jonathan Tropper, Banshee sets its tone in record time. After the aforementioned shagging in the back room, Starr approaches a cross-dressing hairdresser for information, gets into a high-octane chase through the streets of New York (complete with a shaky CGI effect of a toppling tour bus), and makes his way to a remote part of Pennsylvania to find his old girlfriend ... at which point, he immediately walks into another bar and gets into an ultra-violent fight that leaves three dead, including the new town sheriff whose identity is stolen by Starr as a pretext for sticking around.

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Our introduction to Banshee - both the town, filled with a criminal cartel and a large Amish population, and the show - is violent, bloody and straight to the point. It's also predictable and full of cliché. In fact, the first hour telegraphs almost every major storyline that the first season is likely to explore.

After an hour in which Starr's character assumes the identity of new sheriff Lucas Hood, tips off his co-worker that he might not be who he claims, haunts an old girlfriend who has changed her name, and is introduced to the criminal overlord Kai Procter ("What the man doesn't own, he runs. What the man doesn't run, he burns to the ground," says local bar owner Sugar Bates), we can see where the show is heading.

I mean, that isn't necessarily a bad thing - there is no harm in knowing that we'll be exploring Hood's real identity, figuring out what he and ex-girlfriend Carrie (formerly Ana) got up to before he started a 15-year stretch and why she had to go into hiding, and what is up with Kai's connection (straying into sexual obsession) to the local Amish community.

But living in the past does leave little room for development; if we're always exploring what happened in Hood's past (and Carrie's past, and Kai's past), there isn't much room for our main characters to grow in any meaningful way.

There is the start of a good show here, though. Sure, the setup for our major stories was a little clumsy, and the show did meander into cliché - the sassy receptionist, the grumpy cop bypassed for promotion, the bartender who tells his life story within minutes, the dying man who whispers "I hope my mom was right about God" - and gratuitous nudity, with one scene crossing the line from sexposition into "okay, awkward". But there are a couple of things to like heading into week two.

The first is Starr, who did a great job as Lucas Hood; some reviewers have commented that he has a subtle charisma, but I just thought he brought the right level of vulnerability to the part. You really get the sense that this is a man who feels slighted by life, and who genuinely doesn't have any other place to go. Starr leads the cast - also featuring Frankie Faison, Ivana Milicevic and Ulrich Thomsen - well, fitting in nicely (despite an accent which floats in and out).

The second is the setting itself, which is an interesting mash-up of old and new cultures. Seeing an Amish wagon in the modern world of Banshee is unique to a viewer like me - and perhaps a subtle reflection of our "old dog, new tricks" main character.

I'm not sure what to think of the violence and language. In this first hour, we were treated to a random motorcyclist shot through the helmet, Starr jamming a hot-sauce bottle into an assailant's mouth, a graphic bullet hole in a victim's hand, a bone protruding from a man's arm, a profane racial slur against an Asian character, and a man being forced to put his own teeth back in his mouth after they were forcibly removed. It all seemed a little over the top, and out of step with the rest of the episode.

But it didn't distract too much from the episode, which introduced us to an interesting town and a curious, if not entirely engaging group of characters. I'll definitely be watching next week, if only to see which bar Starr walks into next.

What did you think of the first episode of Banshee? Will you be watching next week?

(*) If you're interested, Cinemax have posted the whole first episode on YouTube. I can't say this strongly enough: the show is strictly R18, definitely not safe for work (or for watching in front of the kids). It contains sex, violence and bad language.

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