On a hot fall afternoon just outside Charlotte, North Carolina, Antony Starr is busy getting punched in the kidneys, slammed against a wall and kicked in the solar plexus. As he pauses for a breath, a command comes: "Let's work on that strangling again!" Just a typical day on the set of Banshee.
Flash back to late April. On the first day of shooting, the actor playing Starr's opponent in a brawl came at him a bit too strong. "He cracked me in the face and split my lip open," Starr recalls, "but our schedule was so tight, I didn't get to the hospital for six hours." That's when Starr realized just how different filming Cinemax's noirish thriller would be from the comedies and dramas he was used to making in his native New Zealand. "They shot me with painkillers and we kept going," he says with a chuckle. "It was a sign of things to come." Thankfully, Starr, who plays a master thief and ex-con who assumes the identity of a sheriff named Lucas Hood in the titular Pennsylvania small town, survived the 10 episodes with just a few additional bumps and bruises.
Cinemax's first purely original mainstream series (Strike Back and Hunted are British coproductions), Banshee is intended as the new face of the channel — nicknamed "Skinemax" for its previous reliance on soft-core erotica. "Our aim in our rebranding," programming president Kary Antholis admits, "is to find producers, writers and directors who [can create] pulp with sophisticated narratives — what Tarantino, Cronenberg and the Coen brothers are doing with movies."
So when executive producer Alan Ball (True Blood) brought Banshee to the network, Antholis grabbed it. Created by first-time TV writers Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler, the show centers on Lucas' attempt to reunite with his true love and partner in crime, Anastasia (Ivana Milicevic), after having served 15 years for a jewel heist. While he was imprisoned, she fled to Banshee, married the local DA and remade herself as mom Carrie Hopewell. When Lucas tracks her to the town, he decides to hang around and play lawman — the kind who punches first, asks questions later and occasionally steals stuff.
With its brutal violence, extreme villains and graphic sex, Banshee feels like a superior late-night exploitation flick. But, says showrunner Greg Yaitanes, "in the end, it's a love story within a candy-coated action show." The demographics bear this out. Like all of Cinemax's programming, Banshee is aimed primarily at young men, but, according to Antholis, about 35 percent of the audience is women. With an average gross audience of 2.7 million viewers, it's also the network's most popular series. (Cinemax has ordered 10 more episodes for 2014.)
Antholis hopes the show's numbers and positive reviews will help convince the likes of Comcast and DirecTV to push the network in their premium packages. "Our mission," he says, "[is] to give them a narrative, to say to them that Cinemax is on the map with original programming."
Hoping to immerse fans into the world of Banshee, the network has gone multiplatform with the comic book Banshee Origins, social media extensions and 13 prequel webisodes.
The season's penultimate episode, airing this week, opens with Carrie bleeding in Lucas' car after killing the thug her father, Ukrainian mob boss Rabbit (Ben Cross), sent to bring her back to him. Her dad blames Lucas for the theft of his cache of diamonds and even more for the theft of his daughter's affections. As Carrie recovers, Milicevic says, "Ana, the woman she once was, starts to seep through her pores. When she learns her family is in danger from Rabbit and his men, she becomes Mama Bear, a vigilante."
It's not just Rabbit who has Lucas in his crosshairs. There's also Banshee's sadistic formerly Amish crime boss, Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), and Carrie's husband, Gordon (Rus Blackwell), a war hero. "The love triangle between Lucas, Carrie and Gordon," Yaitanes says, "has come to a head."
But Lucas' toughest challenge is saved for the March 15 finale. "He faces a test that makes him examine who he really is," Starr says, "and what he is willing to do to protect those he loves. For any action, there's a reaction. We let it all hang out in the last episode."
Do they ever. Back on set in Charlotte, the deafening sound of gunfire ricochets through the location, a long-abandoned mill. The body count rises as opposing armies of gunmen train their Glocks and Remingtons on each other. Some are there to rescue a kidnapped comrade; others are seeking revenge. "Like a contemporary Western, it's the bad guy coming to town with his mob," Starr says. "It's an epic finale."
Despite the shocking conclusions to some storylines, Yaitanes promises to keep the tension high when the show returns for Season 2. And those who have read the comic will recognize a new antagonist for Lucas: a federal agent sent to investigate the violence-prone town. His name is Jim Racine, and he also knows all about Rabbit and his gang.
He just shouldn't expect anyone to put out a welcome mat.
Banshee airs Fridays at 10/9c on Cinemax.