One of the things I love about the Internet age is how easy it is to access the exact kind of television you want to watch. Recently, I watched the entire fifth season of Justified in about a week and a half (thank you, Amazon Prime membership!) and found myself yearning for more afterward. Few pieces of entertainment, popular or otherwise, manage to marry winning characters, witty dialogue, and wrenching drama like the brainchild of recently deceased hardboiled scribe Elmore Leonard. That’s why I was excited to hear that Cinemax’s Banshee was cut from the same cloth. Then the first few episodes cured me of my enthusiasm.
Banshee seems promising at first blush, what with an opening that’s as spare as it is hard-hitting. Prison gates roll back to release a hardened ex-con. He gets a sandwich, hooks up with a waitress, then tracks down an address from an unwilling contact. He dodges a hitman who comes at him with guns blazing. And after that close call, he makes his way to Banshee, Pennsylvania. He isn’t in town for more than a day before he meets Lucas Hood, the new sheriff. And when I say new, I mean new. No one knows him because Hood hasn’t even set foot in Banshee proper yet—and he never will. A barroom brawl messily ends the man’s life, and before his body has even cooled, the ex-con has stolen both his name and star. He has reasons for wanting to stay in this not-so-sleepy Amish burg and a whole herd of problems he’d rather leave in the past.
As a pitch, that description sounds pretty awesome. But the show itself? Not so much. The characters are as well-rounded as cardboard. The dialogue floats as lightly as a lead ingot. The setting, cinematography, and acting are simply adequate. Instead of focusing on those fundamentals, its creators seem to have put their efforts into violence that would do David Cronenberg proud and sex so explicit it’s almost clinical. As a typical American, I have to say I’m more comfortable with the former, but I’m willing to tolerate the latter if it somehow serves the story and isn’t too graphic. But let’s just say that if you watched the pilot while on the treadmill at the gym, you might be asked to leave the establishment. And if a show slips violence into sex (as Banshee did midway through the third episode), that’s when I nope out entirely.
See, sex is not story. Violence is not story. Neither is profanity or any sort of prurience. They can animate a plot, develop a character, or emphasize a theme. They do that even in sacred books. Read the story of Abner and Asahel with its description of grievous bodily trauma or the parable of Oholah and Oholibah with its decidedly frank descriptions of genitalia. Just please don’t do it when the kids are around. But with those stories, such subjects aren’t the steak on the plate or even the baked potato and broccoli. They’re a sprinkling of salt—at most.
You can’t say the same for Banshee. As far as I got in the series (which was admittedly not very far), breasts and blood were the only reason to keep watching. Twentieth-century novelist E.M. Forster would’ve frowned at that. He once wrote that a story “can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.” That fault is a storytelling sin to which Banshee quickly falls prey.
(Picture: CC 2014 by EyesOnFire89)