Movie channels have been churning out higher quality television shows for a long time, though they didn’t really start gaining notable momentum until the ‘90s with Showtime being more known for its sci-fi shows like Stargate SG-1 and The Outer Limits and HBO for its gritty dramas like The Sopranos and Oz, in addition to the smash hit comedy Sex and the City. Then there was Cinemax, which was affectionately nicknamed “Skinemax” due to the high volume of softcore pornography it aired. However, things have changed for Cinemax in the past decade as the network decided to try its hand at creating high quality original programming, with impressive results.
In this modern era, we are bombarded with high quality scripted television from a multitude of sources. Not only is there standard syndicated TV programming from Fox, ABC, NBC and the CW (or DCW, as I like to call it), we also have all of those cable channels like USA, Comedy Central and F/X. Hell, even the History Channel has proven to be successful with the very enjoyable Vikings and for the past few years, the likes of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime have produced their own original shows. So it is really no surprise that Cinemax joined the fray, however the surprise for me is how good it actually is.
HBO and Showtime have continuously pumped out one successful series after another. HBO has kept up with its high quality drama in their most popular show ever Game of Thrones, while Showtime seems to have followed their lead and is now known mainly for their dramatic shows such as Homeland and Ray Donovan. Meanwhile, Cinemax shot for something else altogether that helped set it apart from the pack with its first major scripted show in 2011 - the action packed, world travelling, terrorist hunting series Strike Back.
Serving as a sequel series (or just a second season) to the BBC show of the same name that co-starred Rick Grimes himself Andrew Lincoln, this new series follows British Military intelligence group Section 20, along with a former delta force operative, as they try to stop terrorists around the world. Unlike Showtime’s popular anti-terror series Homeland, this did not take a realistic and grounded approach to stopping terrorists, instead opting for the guns blazing, “24 on crack” method.
However, unlike 24, or more significantly Game of Thrones, this is not an overly surprising show. What I mean by that is that even though there are some unseen twists, shocking deaths and tragic moments, this show doesn’t operate by the “keep the audience on their toes” method of storytelling. Any surprise or twist is typically well placed and not overused, so unlike the aforementioned shows, watching this isn’t inherently draining. Instead of focusing on terrible things constantly happening, we are taken through an adrenaline ride of action, with the occasional emotional moment thrown in to keep the story from growing stagnant.
This series opens up with the death of the main character from the original series, Richard Armitage’s John Porter, thus confirming this is a continuation of that series. We then proceed to meet our new heroes, the stoic British military man Michael Stonebridge (Phillip Winchester) and the womanizing American ex-Delta Force operative Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton), who is recruited as he is the only man that can ID the terrorist leader that killed Porter. Even though that storyline is resolved in the first season, Scott sticks around for the following seasons as he and Stonebridge, along with the rest of Section 20, travel the globe to prevent various terrorist attacks.
Throughout the series there is some change in the supporting cast, with the leader of Section 20 changing a couple of times. Additionally, the various analysts and other field operatives rotate frequently, as Stonebridge and Scott remain the clear constant and the focus of the series during its four season run. These two have undeniably great chemistry together, whether it be their friendly banter, dealing with another character’s death, or working together in a fire fight, the actors work perfectly together, which is a vital part of making a successful show.
Another vastly important aspect of any good show is the story. Virtually every serialized scripted show has a standard story structure. You go from point A to point B, following the characters as the story unfolds. And while Strike Back certainly does that, it does it a tad bit differently than what I’m used to and I think the difference is a great decision. Much like other premium channel shows, this maintains a smaller episode count with 10 episodes per season for its run on Cinemax. Each season has its own main threat that must be dealt with, an evil terrorist with a plot that must be stopped, however getting there is a little different than one might expect.
The team tracks down various leads or associates of the main threat, which takes them across the globe. Every two episodes are dedicated to that lead and, more specifically, every two episodes take place in a different location. This makes each two-episode block basically its own movie, taking place in its own specific location that is different from all of the other two-episode blocks with its own supporting characters and usually its own antagonist. There is still a connection to the overarching villain and sometimes our heroes directly interact with them but this style of storytelling gives this series a large scope, fast pace and greater variety.
Aiding in the quick pace is the frequent action set pieces, some large and some small, but almost always are they well-made and fun. It’s a strange thing to say, but Cinemax has some of the most well produced action on a TV show, and it is in part thanks to Strike Back. This very much falls into the realm of escapism action with plenty of fire fights, explosions, chases and punches. It is also typically quite violent, not necessarily gory, but there is plenty of blood and every season has a high body count. Unfortunately, there are the occasional small budget pains, but thankfully with the typical quicker pace of the episodes, we rarely have the time to dwell on it.
Strike Back is an immensely entertaining, fun show and it is genuinely difficult to think of anything else quite like it. This type of action is rarely seen on the small screen. Combine that with the perfect casting of the leads, engaging stories and the variety provided by the two-episode mini story arcs and Strike Back is a show worth watching. It may suffer from being a bit over-the-top sometimes and containing some gratuitous sex scenes, but those don’t hold it back from giving me a consistently fun viewing experience.
Following the success of Strike Back, the premiere of which garnered their best ratings since 2005, Cinemax decided to expand their scripted TV show roster. In 2013 a new show began to air, a show that once again gave us something we weren’t used to while maintaining the impactful action we were used to with Strike Back, only this time it focused more on fists than guns. This new show was the crime drama Banshee.
The story of Banshee follows Antony Starr as a recently released ex-con (whose real name we don’t know) as he tracks down his former partner and love interest Anastasia (Ivana Milicevic). With the help of his hacker friend, the cross dressing Job (Hoon Lee), he finds her in Banshee, PA living under the name Carrie Hopewell with a husband and two kids. In order to hide from his former boss Rabbit (Ben Cross), and track down his share of the last job he worked on with Anastasia, he travels to Banshee.
After arriving in this new town, the nameless ex-con runs into the brand new sheriff Lucas Hood, who literally just arrived from across the country and isn’t known by anyone in town yet. After witnessing the death of the new sheriff he decides to take over his identity, becoming Lucas Hood with the help of Job and former boxer-turned-bar owner Sugar (Frankie Faison), allowing him to stay close to Anastasia/Carrie. Along the way Lucas, has to keep up appearances as the sheriff to prevent his deputies from becoming suspicious that he isn’t who he says he is, resulting in him taking on the ex-Amish local kingpin Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen).
The problem with this show is that I feel like it just needs to be watched to be understood. If you try to just explain it as “an ex-con poses as a small town sheriff in order to acquire his share of a job he pulled that sent him to prison”, that is technically accurate but it is missing so much of what makes this a unique story and so to properly convey the experience, you have to explain more and more. So many of the characters and situations are different than what I’ve seen before, especially in this combination. For instance, Banshee resides in Amish country AND near a Native American reservation, resulting in heavy interaction with both communities- either one being rare enough to see on its own on TV, let alone combined.
Many of the characters also feel fairly unique. A hacker character? Yeah, those are pretty standard. An effeminate male cross-dressing hacker who is also a badass? Can’t say I’ve seen that one before. A rule-breaking tough cop? Eh, they’re a dime a dozen. An ex-con who takes over the identity of a cop and breaks whatever rules he wants to take down the bad guys while simultaneously pulling off heists in his spare time? Yeah, that’s different. And while some of the characters fall into stereotypes, many of those same characters evolve over time and proceed to break our preconceived notions about them.
Even though some of the characters might break stereotypes, the plot is rarely surprising. Much like Strike Back there is certainly the occasional shocking death or plot twist but, for the most part, it doesn’t really rely on the shock factor. Instead we are given a unique setting with a few different character types and some impressive fight scene action, and while the story typically works at keeping us engaged, it's those other elements that keep us interested.
Speaking of the action, this is one aspect that sets Banshee apart from other crime dramas. There are regular fight scenes throughout each season with the finales usually resulting in one large action set piece. The action and fights are all typically violent and brutal, reminding me somewhat of The Raid: Redemption or its sequel, only with lesser choreography and the shoot outs seem influenced by such John Woo Hong Kong classics as Hard Boiled or The Killer. For a TV show, Banshee easily has some of the best fight scenes and action I’ve come across, though their overreliance on CGI (including for some of the wounds inflicted) can be a bit distracting given its mixed quality.
Both Banshee and Strike Back had four-season runs, allowing the producers to properly end the series on their own terms, something that's not afforded to many series. I have not yet watched the final season of either show but I can say that the first three seasons of both aren’t the most thought-provoking or high-quality shows out there, however they are undeniably fun. Whereas the competing premium networks have delivered top notch drama, period pieces and even comedy, Cinemax delivered something different in these two shows that mainly focus on entertaining action.
Strike Back is the terrorist-hunting adrenaline ride, as if 24 and Rambo: First Blood Part 2 had a baby and then let Chuck Norris raise it. It is supremely fun and action packed with great chemistry between the leads. And then there is Banshee, which merges a crime drama with action, feeling like an off-brand of The Raid: Redemption and Hard Boiled. We are given a bit more of an engaging story, especially as the seasons go on and more and more characters receive greater focus and backstory. It displays a fairly unique setting, and some different characters than what we’re used to.
Even though both shows harken back to the Skinemax days a bit with some of those lengthy sex scenes and are occasionally mired by subpar CGI, they are highly enjoyable and different than the offerings found on other movie channels. Cinemax has since gone forward with other shows such as the medical drama The Knick with Clive Owen and the Vietnam War-era crime drama Quarry that just premiered on September 9th. They have a few more series ordered including a comic book adaptation and between all of this, they have firmly solidified their position as another producer of high-quality original content. I look forward to what comes next.
Andy Snyder is a writer and regular contributor for Happy Dragon Pictures. He loves video games, films from all over the world, screenwriting and kittens.