"Banshee," which returns for its third season on Cinemax Friday, is one of TV's most reliable pleasures.
The drama tells the story of Lucas Hood, which is not the real name of the character played by Antony Starr. In the 2013 pilot, Starr's ex-con character rolled into the sleepy Pennsylvania town of Banshee and took the identity and the name of a man who was about to step into the job of town sheriff (the real Hood's death made the switch possible).
Since that day, "Hood" has battled foes new and old as he's attempted to come to terms with the criminal life that put him in jail for 15 years and as he's pondered the choices that have made his personal life intensely complicated. A lot of Hood's battles involve fists of fury: The action sequences on "Banshee" are among the most intensely satisfying bone-crunching interludes anywhere on TV. Even as I wonder if the cast has an adequate supply of Advil, I revel in the inventive road chases, energetic fisticuffs and bar-clearing brawls the show unleashes almost every week.
It would be a mistake, however, to classify "Banshee" as nothing more than a superficial action hour. Creators David Shickler and Jonathan Tropper are highly regarded novelists and screenwriters who clearly know their way around genre pieces and are able to infuse "Banshee" with film noir flair, character-driven tension and thoughtful existential questions. Despite the deeper subtexts, the sinewy show is never weighed down by self-importance or pompousness: "Banshee" possesses too much self-awareness and wit to ever become a slog.
As Tropper explains in the interview below, when it arrived, "Banshee" represented a pivot for Cinemax, which is part of HBO's entertainment empire. After "Banshee" debuted, Cinemax rolled out "Strike Back," "Hunted" and "The Knick," dramas with very different premises but similar marching orders. Each show takes on a particular genre -- rural film noir for "Banshee," spy thriller for "Hunted," international action hour for "Strike Back" and medical drama for "The Knick." All these shows have compelling thematic concerns and outstanding aesthetic pedigrees, but for each of them, the point is to entertain. Smart observations and cogent agendas can be found if you look for them, but Cinemax doesn't necessarily traffic in overt displays of intellectual heft and the formal "prestige" markers that are the stock in trade of HBO and other high-profile cable channels. Cinemax's brand is intelligent escapism, and I think that's a smart way to go.
Noel Murray of the AV Club recently wrote a thoughtful piece about the idea of "prestige" and how that word is no longer very useful when it comes to describing the many different kinds of quality that exist in the realm of television these days. As I noted in the introduction to my Best of 2014 list, there has been an explosion in the sheer variety of good TV. It comes in so many flavors and styles now; the levels and definitions of quality are expanding at a very rapid clip. There are mainstream shows, escapist romps, niche programs, formulaic standbys and a clutch of shows clearly aiming for that "prestige" label, and that roster only scratches the surface of the categories a discerning viewer can choose from. Viewers have never had a more varied array of watchable options.
There's one category that stands out in recent years, for me, anyway. As my year-end lists showed, I am quite happy to celebrate the usual suspects of highbrow TV. But for a while now, I've taken special note of a category I call "B-Movie TV." Subversive and entrancing stories are being told on the margins of TV within the confines of well-known genres, and those who fail to take note are missing out. "Outlander," "Defiance," "Vikings," "Call the Midwife," "The Fall," "The Returned," "Lost Girl," "Jane the Virgin," "Penny Dreadful," "The 100" -- these are shows that aren't necessarily going to win awards, end up on Top 10 lists or get magazine covers. They're all using familiar TV genres to reassure audiences of their wish to entertain first and foremost, but they're also admirably willing to explore complicated and sometimes even revolutionary ideas about gender, class, race, sexuality and politics.
"Banshee" was one of the first in the current wave of "B-Movie TV" gems, and it's been a pleasure watching Lucas Hood and his fellow residents of Banshee evolve (or fail to evolve). Though Tropper says there might only be five seasons of the show, based on the show's track record, I am fairly sure each one of them will be well worth watching. (By the way, you can read the first part of the interview without having seen the show. You'll get a warning when you should stop if you want to remain spoiler free.)
Given the premise of "Banshee," it seems like one of those shows that just can't run forever. Do you have a time frame in mind for how far you want to take it?
We definitely have a sensitivity to the fact that the central premise of this show has a time limit on it. We always felt that we could work within that universe for about five seasons of 10 episodes, and then either we would find a place for the show to evolve, and if not, we always knew what the ending of the show was. So we would either make it a five-season show or be open to any organic evolution that comes. We were not going to be writing eight seasons of a fake sheriff.
Right. I think that one of the things that's so enjoyable about the show is it feels very concentrated. It doesn't feel like you're stowing stuff away for later.
We treat each season like our last season. We kind of know the show is doing well and we will get renewed, but we never say, "Let's hold that for Season 5." Anything we can think of, we put out there while we still got a crew and a cast and a budget.
Speaking of that, the show does action and fights really well. Is that something that takes up a huge amount of your time as a writer/producer, or is that something that's kind of down to a science now with the crew that you have?
It doesn't take up a tremendous amount of our time, because that's the kind of stuff that when you write the script -- you get a general sense of what that is, and that doesn't take any longer to write than anything else. The work involved in developing those sequences falls much more to the director and our stunt team and our actors, and I have the wonderful opportunity to then look at the results of their work and offer little suggestions. But we have professionals who do that work. Does it occupy a lots of time for this show? Yes. I mean, a stunt sequence involves a lot more shooting time than a conversation, so certainly when we [schedule] an episode, if there is going to be a significant action sequence, we have to plan for that, because we shoot every episode in about 10 days. Obviously we have to be economical about when we put in those sequences and how often we do it and how we're going to absorb the time-suck of it.
Part of what's satisfying about "Banshee" is that the show is really challenging to the characters and it can be dark, but those parts are balanced by the action sequences, which are often such a visceral thrill. Do you think that they're important to balance out the show?
Well, we initially developed the show at HBO and then we moved it over to Cinemax. When we moved it over to Cinemax, I knew that there was going to be a stronger component of action, and that did not bother me at all. I grew up in the golden age of action movies, you know, the '80s and early '90s, when Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone and those guys were kind of redefining it. I was a big fan of the straight-to-video stuff and the late-night cable stuff as well as the big-budget [movies]. And the trick is to not let that become reductive. If you are going to celebrate that, celebrate it, but don't do it at the expense of your characters and at the expense of the intelligence of the show. And that's something we work on.
What I like about this show is you can look at it and say, it's a pulpy action show, but we're also really dealing with large metaphysical questions. What the show to me really is about is identity -- it's about this one man and then a number of people around him who are all struggling to figure out if they have to be who they seem destined to be, or if they will somehow be able to change their metaphysical DNA and become someone else.
Lucas' biggest struggle is, he's never really been an adult. He went to jail when he was in his early 20s, came out as a 40-year-old with no idea who he was, and he immediately became a fake. So I think Lucas' entire journey is figuring out who the hell he is. You're dealing with sort of a tragic existence. I think as long as we focus on that -- we still want to be a fun show and an action show, but we're also dealing with real characters with real issues.
I don't know if I'm getting too deep with this, but sometimes I think about "Banshee" as a microcosm of American society. Some people in the show's world are trying to change the system, or trying to get away from generations of violence and theft and conflict, but it often seems that they can't escape the gravitational pull of it.
That's a bit of an allegory that may be I don't think I had in mind. But that's the thing about art -- everyone sees what they see in it. To me, though, it is certainly a very naturalistic show and a humanistic show, and that gets a little bit lost when you see that it's on Cinemax and you see all the fighting and the sex. America was always considered the land of second chances. In "Banshee," everyone is reinventing themselves and trying to figure out who they are now, and in that sense it's definitely a microcosm of small-town America, like, the underbelly of what we really are here. We might have this bucolic setting with pastures and meadows and farmers and cows grazing, and at the same time we're completely fucked up in that we don't really know who we are anymore.
If we ever did. And I like the fact that it's a rural setting. I think that that gives it a different flavor than if it had been one more urban action show. Is it really important that it's set in a "heartland" kind of place?
It absolutely is, because people are anonymous in big cities and to be a fake cop -- I mean, it just wouldn't have had the same impact. Being a fake cop in New York City is not going to have a ripple effect across the whole city. It may not even have a ripple effect across the whole precinct. Whereas being a fake sheriff in a small town -- you are basically going to affect everyone in that town, which makes it a much ballsier ruse and also has much greater implication.
[Stop reading now if you'd like to avoid plot details from Seasons 1 and 2.]
Given that this is Season 3, you're almost at the midpoint of what you envisioned for the show. Do you think Season 3 will have a different flavor? Are there different things you're trying to accomplish with this season than you did in the past?
The big challenge when we sat down to write Season 3 was, with the threat of Rabbit gone, what is the unifying thread here? What keeps Lucas in "Banshee"? Why wouldn't he just leave? He didn't get the girl, he didn't get the money, the threat is gone -- time to strike out for something new. When I sat down in the writers' room, one of the first things I brought up was "The Man Who Would Be King." I don't know if you're familiar with that movie with Sean Connery and Michael Caine?
The idea is that if you fake something long enough and you have nothing better in your life, you would actually start deluding yourself into thinking this is real. And after two years of being a fake sheriff, we find Lucas thinking, "Well, maybe I was supposed to be here and maybe I am the best thing that could've happened to this town." We find Lucas actually settling in. He's still Lucas Hood -- he's still a criminal, obviously; he's still planning his big heist. But at the same time, he feels a certain possessiveness over the town and over his job, and he's utterly conflicted as to whether he's the sheriff or not. To me, the idea that he went from using that position completely as a ruse to ultimately feeling responsibility for his deputies and for the town itself is both really fascinating and also puts him in a really difficult position.
Right. Because one of the main themes of the series is that it's really hard to break away what's in your DNA. He's the kind of guy who wants to break the rules and do what feels right to him in the moment, without thinking through the consequences.
Exactly. It's that, and an inability to trust in the system or to believe in any justice other than your own. And what I'm really excited about for this season, which I think comes across really well, is that the two alpha males on our show, Kai Proctor and Lucas Hood -- as much as they hate each other, they're on a very parallel journey in this season. Both of them clearly wish they could live a life other than the life they're living. But no matter how hard they try, they seem to not have the ability to change who they are and to transform themselves.
For Lucas, I wonder if what keeps him going is the idea that maybe he can give his daughter a better shot at changing her nature or embracing a better nature than he ever did.
When you spend 15 years sitting in a cell, everything that he's experiencing now is from a totally self-centered and narcissistic point of view. It's like, "What can this town be for me? What can the sheriff's badge be for me? What can having a daughter be for me?" His ultimate evolution has to be to realize [that his thinking process should be,] "What can I be for these people? How can I help them?" versus "How can they help define me?" Because basically he's a blank slate. He doesn't know who he is.
And the fear is that he will eventually turn into Kai or Rabbit.
Yeah. I mean there's a very, very clear way that that could happen. Right before Rabbit dies at the end of Season 2, [he said the line,] "Somewhere in your future there's a bench like this waiting for you."
One of the things I like about the world is the mix of characters and cultures and agendas. There's the Native American tribe, there's Sugar and his past, there's Job. It's a small town, but within that, it's bursting with a lot of different histories and viewpoints.
From the very beginning, the idea was, "No central casting and no flat characters." [Executive producer and director] Greg Yaitanes had been doing a network show for four years and he really impressed upon me that we had the ability to be an upstart. We were Cinemax's first homegrown show. He said, "You have the ability to not cast this thing with the predictable network actors. You can make this the least vanilla show on TV -- you can really go for broke with your casting and pick people that you could never imagine getting cast on a network show." We really did that. Our show doesn't look like any other show, and part of that is because we cast these really interesting and different people to populate it.
My last question is, you are a novelist and have other creative projects on your plate. What was it about doing a TV show that attracted you so much that you are devoting large parts of your life to it?
It's the same thing that I think attracts all writers. TV right now is where the most artistic fulfillment is, and it's also where the writer still has the most control. I write features too, but in features, I'm really beholden to the director, and the director calls the shots. Ultimately, it's the director's vision that shows up on the screen, and in TV, it's the writer. As a novelist who has complete control over what he puts on the page, it felt very natural for me to gravitate to television, where I would have a lot of control over what gets produced and what get shot, where I could really see the visions through.
"Banshee" airs Friday at 10:00 p.m. ET on Cinemax.