Quick disclaimer: I’ll try to avoid spoilers as best I can, but if you haven’t seen the first series, perhaps it would be best to avoid reading on.
The first series of Banshee had aired before I’d even heard about its existence. It was recommended to me as ‘fun’ and ‘cool’, nothing more than that. Because most new TV shows these days are neither of those things I was instantly intrigued. I checked the plot synopsis – this particular one was very vague; man with no name gets out of prison, arrives in small town looking for his (ex?) girlfriend, assumes the identity of the sheriff who dies in front of him and who just happens to be new in town as well. Absolutely. Of course.
Now the identity theft scenario has been done before, in some form or other, but because of the lack of detail in the plot synopsis I had absolutely no idea what to expect beyond this.
I mean, where do you start?
Well I might as well start with the start of the first episode. It tries, and succeeds, at least for the first half hour, to retain a sense of mystery. It manages to avoid giving any details that would attempt to validate the occurring events. The main protagonist is unnamed. He’s seen leaving prison and heading for New York – not before a detour to have a beer at a bar where the bar hostess allows him to have a lot more – this will be a recurring theme. All the while he seems to be looking over his shoulder, for someone or something, you don’t know why. Then we see a sinister Eastern European looking bloke with a dodgy spider web neck tattoo appear. The protagonist sees this fella following him, but undeterred he heads to a Hair/Beauty (it doesn’t matter) salon owned by the campest Korean cross dresser this side of, well…I don’t know. There is no comparison. If anything it’s a brilliant analogy for the show. Then he wants to know the location of some woman that the camp Korean might know. After the protagonist gets his way – and there’ll be more of that too – there’s a mash up car chase, in the heart of Manhattan no less. The protagonist escapes, and goes to a town called in Pennsylvania called Banshee.
If you’ve lasted this far, you’ve been bombarded by a succession of actions and action sequences that make no sense whatsoever. Your brain has either shut down, or is in the process of doing so. Don’t worry, you won’t be needing it again. This isn’t The Wire, Breaking Bad or Mad Men. There is no nuance or depth to be had.
And this is the key to the show’s success. You can live with the absurdity of the narrative construct, and the characters that populate it, and not be bothered by it, because it never attempts to make you believe in it to begin with. It’s cultured, and I use that word with irony, to appeal to the seedy side of our nature. There’s always an attraction, or fascination, to observing someone else doing something that we wouldn’t contemplate. That Banshee is fiction allows us a safe level of detachment to project onto and live vicariously through the actions of the honourably attuned characters, no matter how selfish, patronising, daft, violent or reprehensible they are.
One of the show’s successes is that you root for the central character, eventually named Lucas Hood. He’s a figure with desirable attributes. There’s something for everyone here, we all wish we could be like him in some way. I’m not sure if he’s sexy or not, as I’m not that way inclined, but if you’re not sure it does make you wonder if he is, and why he is. He beds virtually all the hot women in Banshee, even the one whose husband he kills (yep, really) and even those who don’t, give him, and us, the impression that ‘they so would’. He does what he likes when he likes and seemingly turns up to work when it suits him. Despite being a cop, or rather playing one, he fucks up white supremacists without any fear of repercussion or being reprimanded by slamming their heads into brick walls, and he beats up drug dealers, already handcuffed, who give him lip. Despite moonlighting as a thieving bastard Hood seems to value loyalty, and has a moral compass, and often puts these before his own well being. This description reads like the psyche of a cartoon character.
In essence the problem with Banshee isn’t with its characters flaws, as we’ve seen preposterous characters in far superior shows to this before. It’s when the back story of the characters become revealed, in particular an attempt is made to add depth to the relationship between Lucas Hood and Carrie Hopewell (again, not her real name), that the show starts to develop some problems.
This extrapolation is used as a conduit, cynically and conveniently, to attempt to subvert the show’s aggressively misogynistic tone. We’re presented with Carrie Hopewell, a capable (and then some) woman who fights and manages to restrain herself from giving into Hood, where others do so all too easily. But her struggle with the convergence between the pretence of her mundane existence and the excitement of her past, represented by Hood, comes over as a conceit, as the insinuation is there that she still wants him, and always will. So this makes her just as formulaic as all the other women in the show.
Another problem with the Hood and Carrie dynamic, in relation to the show as whole, is that there’s a distinct lack of detail as to why Hood and Carrie betrayed her father, aka ‘Rabbit’. I accept this might seem a strange complaint given my earlier statement about this being a show that doesn’t demand you take it seriously. But something is better than nothing, even if the show itself isn’t based on much more than puerile superficialities.
The unresolved ‘past’ of Carrie Hopewell and Hood’s history, and its impending arrival in Banshee, eventually takes precedence over the developing power struggle between Kai Proctor, the local gangster of Banshee, and Hood – which the pilot attempted to set up as being the main conflict that would underpin the series. I got the impression that this was changed, on the cuff, to an uneasy alliance, midway through season one. It felt like a compromise where Proctor was marginalised for vast swathes of time. You suspect that the writers either changed their mind about the shows direction, or tried to do too much with too few episodes (ten).
The show’s Amish element is interesting; in so much as it looms over everything simply through its existence, but is made peripheral, in truth inconsequential, to the narrative. It’s a shame that the shunning of Kai Procter, to this point, hasn’t been developed as fully as it could’ve been. As with the Carrie and Hood back-story what they have touched upon with Proctor’s is fragmented and trivial. If better developed Procter’s pathology could make this show watchable for other reasons than voyeurism and vicariousness. If you’ve read ‘Germinal’ by Emile Zola you’ll be familiar with its central philosophical debate as to whether aspiration or an acceptance of place is inherent (nature), or whether we all succumb to what we believe is our place due to beliefs that are fomented through external influences (nurture). So far they haven’t delved into why Kai Proctor is a violent psychopath, which lead to him being shunned, only that he knows he is, and that he couldn’t be a pacifist like an Amish is supposed to be. The attempt is made to construct and then convey that he’s suffering from a mild ennui, or hollowed dissatisfaction if you prefer, at being shunned, and that he has built his business empire as an attempt to distract himself from this. This idea that his violent nature is now being inculcated as a method of denial could be convincing if his character remained more consistently prominent.
One of the more effective devices in Banshee is the use of violence off screen – watch any Michael Haneke film to see how this is expertly done. However, this is the exception rather than the rule. After the end credits there’s usually a small episodic scene, on one occasion we see Kai Proctor getting ready to cut up a body in an abattoir, it cuts to black but we’re left to hear the abrasive sound of an electric saw going through skin and bone. In another we see Kai Proctor’s bizarre, creepy right hand man go into a trailer, mutilate and kill someone, and exit the trailer drenched in blood, but with the camera remaining on the exterior of the trailer throughout the deed. Sadly this technique is used far less than on screen ultra violence, of which there is in virtually every episode. The narrative context, and the holes within it, requires that all the instances of violence take on a voyeuristic quality. The characters only become interesting for their capability, and the way they choose, to hurt others. The people who are beaten up, killed or maimed are there to be. They are shown to be habitually ‘bad’ or ‘immoral’ and it’s done in a way which encourages you the viewer to want to see justice meted out, usually by Lucas Hood.
The other stock characters, who are ‘good’, are blissfully unaware of Hood and Hopewell’s master criminal training, like Douglas Hopewell (Carrie’s husband) and Hood’s subordinates in the Sheriff’s department. All of them exist simply to engender sympathy and to help you side with Hood as they’ve sided with him. When the female deputy’s house is burned down by the biker gang, you want Hood to fuck them up. This is indicative of the show’s hypocrisy and how it drags you down with it. You agree that the biker gang deserve to get creamed for being senselessly violent, rather than violent for a reason, as Hood is. At this point the show has developed a formula where you expect Hood to sort this type out by the end of each episode. But as the Biker gang episode winds down, it hasn’t happened, and then it does, suddenly, and there’s catharsis. Violent catharsis. The kind that sees teeth protruding through cheeks and limbs mangled.
There are two particularly brutal fight scenes which follow this same theme, with Hood meting out justice mano-a-mano to two particularly vile characters. I won’t spoil either for you by going into detail, but if you watch episode five on the VLC player and you pause it at just the right time, you’ll see a severed member lying on the floor. Would you normally pause a show to see a severed willy? Well I did, because Banshee makes you revel in the allure of testosterone fuelled power and violence. The violent scenes are designed studiously as a vicarious escape for those who wish they could experience what it’s like to be macho and tough, feared even, but when it comes to the crunch will probably never truly want to be, need to be and never will. Certainly not while meandering mindlessly in the Fruit and Veg isle at Sainsbury’s.
If I could compare Banshee with anything it would be with the TV show Eurotrash and the occasional desire to eat something you know is bad for you, like a Kebab. Eurotrash was presented by Antoine de Caunes and Jean-Paul Gaultier, and was on Channel Four throughout most of the nineties and noughties. The point of Eurotrash was its ironic statement about xenophobia and showing how ridiculously ignorant it is through the absurdity of the reality it was reporting. You laughed at the stupidity of the show’s style of reportage and at the oddities of other cultures, but really you were laughing at de Cannes and Gualtier laughing at you for watching it.
Point being, if I want to be a grownup and devolve myself to realism, I’ll watch a show that provides it. But now and again we all have an inexplicable craving to eat something crap, like a Kebab, specifically one that’s heavy, sweaty, full of carcinogens and induces diabetes and heart palpitations. This is an irrational and illogical notion, and we realise this at the time. It comes from an innate realisation that we’re all mortal, and that living a life eliding danger and the simple narcissistic pleasure that can be derived from it is unfulfilling.
So yes, I’m saying that watching Banshee is the equivalent of eating a Kebab whilst watching Eurotrash. I’ll be watching season two.