Antony Starr

It's a human buffet for swarming, hungry bugs on the North Carolina set of Banshee. While spectators swat and spray, the actors suck it up, completing a truck-jacking scene with no complaints. What's a mite bite to folks who spend so much time plunged in mayhem that makeup can't erase their real-life bruises?

One shot-out window, a driver knocked down and trussed up, and the sequence, for an episode airing in a few weeks, is over. By Banshee's standards, it's a tame affair, but the Cinemax thriller refuses to ride solely on its reputation for spectacularly violent set pieces. The semi is the key to blowing a drug mill to kingdom come.  

Fans won't be surprised that Lucas Hood (Antony Starr) leads the unorthodox operation. The ex-con who became the town's top lawman by expropriating the name of a slain sheriff "has appalling tactics for a cop," Starr says during a break in filming, "but he's getting more done than anyone else in Banshee," a small Pennsylvania burg in thrall to crime boss Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen). Proctor was once a peace-loving Amish farm boy, but now he's a brute who will chop off the finger of a disloyal employee and bomb a Native American rival's unfinished casino.

One way or another, everyone in Banshee is living under an assumed identity. In Season 2, says cocreator Jonathan Tropper, "our goal is to continually chip away at Lucas's, starting with the discovery of the real Lucas Hood's body." On Jan. 24, the dead man's son (Harrison Thomas) shows up, and he's not happy that someone is impersonating his dad. The kid needs to go to the back of a long line of people who wish the fake Hood harm, including Ukrainian mobster Rabbit (Ben Cross) and possibly Rabbit's brother, a hit man-turned-priest (Julian Sands).

Call it noir, pulp or exploitation, but Cinemax's highest-rated original series has proved addictively entertaining, with a canny mix of graphic sex and outrageous fight scenes (for the network's young male viewers) and romantic drama (Lucas is on again with former partner in crime Carrie Hopewell, played by Ivana Milicevic). "There's so much more than loose women, guns and fighting," says the New Zealand-born Starr. "It deals with the existential questions: Who are we and what do we want to be?"

"[The show] enhances the idea that we can do genre programming that's sophisticated," says Cinemax programming chief Kary Antholis. "It has brought a lot of fans" — including women — "who weren't paying attention to us before." The series is also a stepping stone for the network's more ambitious fare, such as Steven Soderbergh's period drama The Knick, starring Clive Owen, due later this year.

R.I.P., Skinemax?

Banshee airs Fridays at 10/9c on Cinemax.

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