They're blowing things up at Cinemax — literally. The channel, a testosterone-dripping younger brother to HBO, is adding the explosive new action series Strike Back in a bid to expand its oft-maligned original programming.
"Cinemax needed to evolve and feel like a premium to subscribers," says HBO miniseries president Kary Antholis, who also oversees shows for Cinemax. "We're trying to grow the brand to a place where it's serving another purpose for people."
But fans of "Skin-emax" will be relieved to hear that Strike Back features all kinds of action — both in the bedroom and on the battlefield. "We looked at what our customers appreciated about Cinemax in the first place, and the best-performing programs were high-octane, combat-oriented action movies," Antholis says.
Among the most popular movie titles on the channel: the Transporter (which Cinemax is also turning into a TV series; alas, without star Jason Statham), Transformers and X-Men franchises. Strike Back, which could be described as a hopped-up-on-steroids version of 24, should fit in just fine.
The series revolves around a U.S. Special Forces operative (Sullivan Stapleton of Animal Kingdom) who teams up with a British black-ops agent (Fringe's Philip Winchester) to stop international terrorists. "It's boys being boys, killing bad guys, blowing s--t up, stealing cars and jumping out of choppers," says Stapleton, who relished the action and was put through a grueling boot camp in order to emulate the real special-ops unit Delta Force. "We went to hell and back."
Strike Back was inspired by a series of novels by British writer Chris Ryan. "His books are not brilliant literature, but they're epic and these wonderful, almost Greek tragedies," says executive producer Dan Percival, who also directed several episodes. "It's people caught and compromised by the desire to do right, finding themselves in impossible situations where moral choices are blurred."
The original season of Strike Back was produced for British channel Sky1 in 2010 and featured Captain America costar Richard Armitage (who wasn't available for Season 2). Antholis believed the show would make a great fit for the new Cinemax and struck a deal to coproduce Season 2 with Sky.
With Cinemax on board, Strike Back was revamped. The budget was increased (to a hefty $3 million an episode), and Stapleton's American character was added. X-Files alum Frank Spotnitz was also brought in to write several episodes. "We're incredibly proud of what they've done," Antholis says. "We're giving people the equivalent of a mini action movie in every episode."
The show, which was shot on location in South Africa and Hungary, contains plots ripped from the headlines and inspired by events like the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The season focuses on a Pakistani terrorist and shines a light on that country's instability — a plot that became even more relevant when Osama bin Laden was found and killed there.
Percival admits it was strange to be making a show about terrorism as that story unfolded. "What was surreal was seeing the kind of rhetoric playing out in the real world that we were dramatizing," he says. "But that's the world that Strike Back lives in."
British actress Amanda Mealing (Four Weddings and a Funeral), who plays a take-charge colonel, says the cast and crew came to work the day after bin Laden was taken down, and compared the stories on Strike Back to the Special Forces mission to hunt the Al Qaeda leader. "It's a drama — we're not making a documentary. But to think that what we're doing is actually going on... It sent a chill through everyone," she says.
Strike Back doesn't shy away from showing the brutality of terrorism, with heads blown off, children in danger and snipers around every corner. A major character even dies in the first episode. Percival says no one on the show is safe. "There's a running joke on the set that you never know when the bullet is coming for you," he says. "There will be something that confounds your expectations every week. But that's war — and real life."
Strike Back premieres Friday at 10/9c on Cinemax.