In the Arrested Development episode “Best Man for the GOB,” the Bluth family throws a fake bachelor party for eldest son GOB as cover to fake a narcoleptic stripper’s death. It’s a long story. Relatively sane brother Michael catches GOB carrying the buckets of fake blood and asks what they might be. Thinking quickly, GOB claims they’re juice. An excited Buster, youngest brother and juice enthusiast breathlessly squeaks, “We have unlimited juice? This party is gonna be off the hook!” Since then, “unlimited juice” has been code in the Supermarket household for anything that is balls-out crazy in the best way. It’s how we describe the Crank movies, the entirety of IFC’s tragically short-lived Bullet in the Face, or the novels of James Ellroy. A few weeks ago, while the parental advisory warnings appeared on the screen just before the second episode of Banshee, my wife turned to me and solemnly declared, “This show has unlimited juice.”
She said this because the warning pretty much listed everything possible: Graphic Violence, Strong Language, Adult Content, Nudity, and Strong Sexual Situations. And this is not a unique situation. The creators of Banshee seem to look at the advisory as more of a checklist than anything else. “Okay, we have a sex scene, we’re set on the profanity, and several people are naked. I feel like we’re forgetting something. Wait, do we have violence? Is it graphic? Fine, have the sheriff pull someone’s ass out of their ass. We’ll do reshoots” At times, it seems like they’re trying to make censors come up with entirely new categories. Hilariously, Cinemax’s censors (there is apparently such an animal) have given up: the last two episodes have warned about Strong Language and Adult Content, despite featuring full frontal nudity, several sex scenes, and a guy going apeshit on a biker gang with a pair of collapsible batons.
Look, I’m with you. Something that is shocking only for the sake of being shocking is unworthy of even a single fawning entry on an obscure pop culture blog. Insanity must be used in the service of the story. The trick then, is to make something so batshit crazy, so toys-in-the-attic nuts, that the checklist not only becomes desirable, but is in fact vital. And this is the rarified air in which Banshee has found itself.
Cinemax has been branching out in recent years. The infamous purveyor of soft-core sleaze has been making a bid for, if not respectability, for viewers to defend their programming with a self-conscious blush and whined, “No, it’s really good!” I have heard good things about their anti-terrorist action show Strike Back, and I enjoyed their bizarrely arty spy thriller Hunted. So when I started to see advertisements in a cartoonish postcard style for a new show on Cinemax, I didn’t immediately dismiss it as a wank vector for people who don’t know about the internet. It helped that the show’s tagline “Small Town, Big Secrets” is like a dog whistle for anyone who loves noir.
To say I wasn’t disappointed in the pilot would be a vast understatement. It would be far more accurate to say I was desperately trying to figure out how my balls had written a show and managed to sell it to a network. And the worst part is, my balls are such hot shit in Hollywood now that they don’t return my calls. Assholes. Anyway, Banshee turned out to be much like Nolan’s Batman movies — it wasn’t the show I wanted; it was the show I needed. I didn’t even know there was a void in my life to be filled until I saw Sheriff Lucas Hood stab a man to death with a bottle of steak sauce.
Okay, fine, it wasn’t actually Lucas Hood. It was an ex-con who just watched the brand new sheriff of Banshee County get murdered by a couple rednecks before uncorking a level of street justice Frank Miller would have had to describe one-handed. And now the ex-con has stolen the identity of the sheriff, sticking around in Suburban Gothic Banshee, Pennsylvania for somewhat mysterious reasons. One of my pet peeves in shows featuring cops is that oftentimes the police are terrible at their jobs, and yet the conceit of the show is not that these are bad cops. In Banshee, the protagonist’s brutal incompetence is built right into the character.
He’s sticking around in Banshee because his former partner in crime, a terrifying and frequently naked thief who looks like what would happen if Hippolyta of Themyscira had tried to sculpt Mila Kunis out of marble, now lives there under the guise of suburban housewife. Her husband is the local DA who is obsessed with bringing down the local crime boss, Kai Proctor, who also happens to be Amish. Yeah, you read that right. The mob in town is fronted by an Amish-born gangster who runs the local meat-packing plant and has a thing for hookers in bonnets. Hood’s sidekicks include a washed up former boxer and fellow ex-con, as well as a bad ass transvestite hacker. It’s this last character, Job, that marks the series as an Alan Ball effort, since the character is a lot like Lafayette from True Blood with the brake lines cut. He is responsible for the best line in the series thus far. When he arrives in Banshee, he takes a jaded look around, and mutters in a honeysuckle drawl, “Here come the motherfuckin’ neighborhood.”
I mentioned that Job is a bad ass. This is a redundant description. Thus far every criminal character in the show is an unstoppable master of freeflow melee mayhem. They seem to exist in a fugue state in which asses remain unkicked only because they cannot muster the strength to give a fuck enough to pick up the nearest object and invent a new way to insert it into the hapless form of their enemy. The fight scenes in Banshee, and they average at least one per episode, are visceral and thrilling slices of righteous ultra-violence.
It feels like Banshee knows my pet peeves in both storytelling and neo-noir and works to tease me that they might come true, and then subvert them. Noir as a genre is often misogynistic and there is always the concern that any new effort will show some ugliness toward women. So when they introduced a sexpot whose only apparent purpose was to have athletic sex with Hood, I inwardly rolled my eyes. When they revealed her to be Amish, I got interested, and when she and Hood had a moment of connection over their double lives, I was sold. And, when she pulled a knife on a biker and shanked him while in full Amish gear, I wondered what the hell my problem had been in the first place.
Banshee is not going to be enshrined in conversation alongside sacred cows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Wire, but it is a nifty neo-noir worth your attention. And it has unlimited juice.