I don't really buy into the concept of the guilty pleasure. The suggestion that enjoying a certain type of movie, music or TV show is shameful feels self-defeating and snobbish -- why can't you like both Béla Tarr and Bella Swan, by golly? Anyone who only publicly admits to liking canonical classics I tend to assume has a secret obsession with the "Real Housewives" franchise. That said, the sensation that's bubbled up in me as I've watched and reluctantly but thoroughly enjoyed "Banshee," the Cinemax original drama closing out its first season tonight, March 15, could probably best be described as guilt. Viewing it has actually felt like it might be doing my harm somehow. "Banshee" is the TV equivalent of eating batter-fried cheese wrapped in bacon and washing it down with a full pint of well bourbon. You know you'll regret it even as you gorge, but the moment itself is pretty damn swell.
"Banshee" is executive produced by Alan Ball, and it resembles his other most recent TV project "True Blood" only in that it starts off at the level of wild-eyed excess the HBO vampire show took several seasons to reach. Created by novelists Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler, "Banshee" has Greg Yaitanes (a director for "House" and "Damages") as a showrunner and Antony Starr ("Wish You Were Here") as protagonist Lucas Hood.
Lucas is a former professional thief fresh off a 15-year stint in prison who tracks down his former flame Anastasia (Ivana Miličević), only to find she's since taken on a new identity, gotten married and had two kids. Our anti-hero arrives in the small town of Banshee, PA, where he's promptly told to get lost by his once love -- but instead, he conveniently stumbles onto a bar fight in which the newly arrived sheriff gets killed. The ex-con takes the man's identity and, with no plan in place except a vague one to win back or wear down the woman now going by the name of Carrie, sticks around acting not terribly believably as a lawman.
"Banshee" has a paper-thin basic premise that's an excuse to gleefully trample any boundaries of good taste as it loops in all sorts of outsized characters -- like Lucas' former partner Job (Hoon Lee), a sassy transvestite master hacker, or Sugar Bates (Frankie Faison), a world weary ex-boxer turned bar owner who goes outrageously out of his way to help Lucas out.
There's town businessman/villain Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), a former Amish man who was kicked out of his community, and Rabbit (Ben Cross), the even bigger bad from whom Lucas and Anastasia have been hiding. There's the Indian-run casino and the tribe behind it, the Ukranian mobster, the whole local Amish community, the young and earnest mayor (Daniel Ross Owens) and the sheriff's department, who are all bewildered by their new boss' not exactly kosher practices.
"Banshee" at first seems like the usual cynical cable exercise in cramming in all the gratuitous sex and violence possible -- women fall into bed (or, just as often, against a wall) with Lucas so frequently they almost seem resentful about it, as when one of the few female characters (played by indie favorite Trieste Kelly Dunn) who hasn't yet slept with him rejects his offer to stay with her for protection by gritting out that that won't be the reason he eventually spends the night.
But "Banshee" has a ridiculous energy that's ultimately irresistible, especially when it starts to seem like a shameless mash-up of other TV and film properties. In one episode, Lucas ends up tangling with an MMA brawler who's in town for a big fight, while in another he battles a biker gang apparently rejected from "Sons of Anarchy."
The show's dedication to broad outrageousness started to win me over around the time a character hired a hooker and had her put on a bonnet before servicing him, and got my wincing full approval in a later episode's extended flashback in which Lucas faced down a rape-minded muscled albino in prison who resembled one of the Engineers in "Prometheus" by way of "Oz," the two having one of the most hilariously brutal fights I've ever seen on TV.
"Banshee" has already been renewed for a second season, so tonight's finale can only do so much damage to the characters, the town and the premise, but given what's already taken place that's still sure to be a lot. Lucas seems able to take an inhuman amount of damage, given the number and extremity of the altercations he's already had. While cable TV has become the whole of high-end dramas like "Mad Men" and "Homeland," it's also an open playground for a show like "Banshee" to run wild with content and turn out a tale that may be a little bad for you, but is an inarguably good time.