Banshee episode 1 review: Pilot

Banshee began this week in the UK on Sky Atlantic. Here's James' review of its eventful, solid opening episode...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 Pilot

The opening episode of the latest US TV concoction produced by Six Feet Under and True Blood’s Alan Ball sets its stall out from the get go and takes no prisoners. 

The unnamed lead in Banshee – Anthony Starr, who looks a bit like Colin Farrell, is seen being released from prison. A determined walk away from the penitentiary gates tells us that this is a man with things on his mind. The next shot of him walking down a railway practically beats us over the head with the notion that this is a guy from the wrong side of the tracks, while haunting industrial piano music growls quietly in the background. 

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After a spot of lunch where he leaves the waitress with a very generous tip of a non-money variety, he indulges in a spot of grand theft auto before heading to a hairdressers/underground lair where he threatens to smash everything up until a man known as Job gives up the location of the person he’s looking for. 

No sooner has our anti-hero walked out the door than he’s caught up in a vehicular chase through the streets of New York City with two suited individuals. Bullets fly, there’s a spectacular NYC open top, tour bus crash before our man escapes via motorbike to the town of Banshee. 

Banshee hasn’t even reached its opening credits and it’s already crammed in sex, robbery, blackmail, a car chase and mass destruction. You suspect that this is going to be a show which will not do subtle.

When the titles do roll we’re treated to a typical Alan Ball-inspired sequence. Much like True Blood, the themes of Banshee are set out in a series of images incorporating sex, death and the Amish background of its Pennsylvania location. 

Much of this opening episode is given over to character introduction. A Banshee courthouse scene sees the audience begin to meet a few of the show’s plentiful cast members. Town DA Gordon Hopewell and young Mayor Dan Kendell are on the losing end of a verdict against Kai Proctor, Banshee’s Mr. Big and slaughterhouse owner. In an opening episode script stuffed full of great lines, it’s here we’re treated to our first one as a disgruntled Hopewell asks Proctor if that is “a judge in your pocket or are you just happy to see me”.

Creators David Schickler and Jonathan Tropper have constructed an inaugural script that is rich on quotable dialogue. There are times when it has a slick, Tarantino-style feel to it. They may have tried to crowbar one too many characters into this pilot but the lines they’re coming out with are an assurance that we’ll remember most of them. 

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Back to our ex-con, and the reason he’s come to Banshee is revealed as he’s loitering and quickly disappearing Michael Myers-style outside Gordon Hopewell’s house. It’s not the DA he’s interested in though, but his rather attractive wife Carrie. Or is it Ana? Ivana Milicevic strikes the right note in this opener as the former bad girl trying to make her way in her new family life. She’s none too pleased to see her former partner in crime and doesn’t have the ten million in diamonds that our guy has come for his cut of. Turns out she was screwed over in the deal they were supposed to make and in turn an NYC gangster called Mr. Rabbit isn’t too happy that he never saw his share of this heist. So that’s what all that unpleasantness in New York before the titles was about. 

About to leave town empty handed, our guy stops off for a few whiskies at a roadside bar. Banshee is about to reveal its plot facilitator when the incoming new town Sheriff, whom, conveniently, no one has met, ends up brutally murdered when our man takes exception to a bit of protection racketing gone wrong by a couple of Kai Proctor’s heavies. This scene sees Banshee show the audience perhaps the level of violence that we can expect in this series. The scene explodes in an orgy of limbs and blood. I made a note while watching this pretty thrilling sequence that said “ketchup bottle – ouch!” 

A few scenes later our man makes a snap decision when answering the now-deceased law man’s mobile to pretend to be new Sheriff Lucas Hood. This is an interesting moment in the opener of Banshee and a key one in helping the show build up the image of the man who we’ll refer to from now on as Lucas Hood. So far he’s seemed confident and assured in his actions. A mystery man, but one with a focussed purpose, and someone who can handle himself when things kick off. This shows us an impulsive side and questions his focus. What’s he really here for if the money he came for is nowhere to be found? We get a few hints in some rather saucy fantasy flashbacks that Carrie/Ana has. It seems she and Hood were partners in more ways than diamond theft.

Hood shows nerves for the first time in his meeting with the Mayor. It could be that he’s a jewel thief impersonating a high-ranking Police officer but it’s a nice addition to the character that actor Anthony Starr is building up so well. Mayor Kendell has drafted in an out-of-town Sheriff in an effort to find someone who Kai Proctor hasn’t already sunk his claws into. In a lot of ways Hood is the typical Western hero – the stranger who strolls into town to sort out the bad guys when no one else can. It lends the show a very old Western feel. 

The remainder of episode one of Banshee is a series of intriguing character introductions. 

Hood meets his fellow law enforcers in the town. The most interesting of who is long serving Deputy Brock Lotus. Besides having a totally cool name, Brock was allegedly next in line for Sheriffship in Banshee, as revealed when he and Hood break up a spot of Amish bashing by some of Proctor’s goons. Will this lead to animosity between the two? Is Lotus already in Proctor’s pay? 

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The character of Proctor is the show’s strongest link to the Amish theme of Banshee. The man has distanced himself from his Amish roots but clearly still has a great respect for them. His estranged father, the man who was the recipient of the Amish bashing incident, won’t talk to him but Proctor deals out his own brand of bloody justice to his employee who had crossed the line. The episode climaxes in a party thrown by Proctor in which this man arrives to get his own back on his boss, only for Hood to shoot him dead in front of lost of the town at the party. The message here is that Banshee has never had a Sheriff like Hood before and while Proctor was willing to beat his own men, he may have met his match in a man who will go even further. 

Banshee episode one felt like eating a huge meal of characters with a generous helping of sex and violence for dessert. We’ve seen this before with new US shows. There is sometimes an attempt to go for the jugular during the first episode and throw as much sex and violence at the audience as possible in the hope that they will return for more next week. It’s often the case that as the plot starts to get going in coming weeks, these elements are toned down. In Banshee’s case though, it’s not actually fair to say that the violence and pretty strong sex scenes are there for show and shock alone, they do all help to build the characters of Hood, Proctor and Carrie. 

As far as plot goes, we’ve got the basics here for a story about how Hood uses his new-found position against Proctor and what his motives may be for that, remain cloudy for now and we’ll see if they change at all. In the background there is the presence of Mr Rabbit back in NYC which will surely come into play later. This episode was all about setting the scene and introducing the characters, some of which is done too fast. There are so many folk in Banshee that I’ve barely made mention of Job, the New York hairdresser who helps Hood become Lucas before blowing up his own salon when Rabbit’s men come calling, and seems like he will be a fun and likeable character, not dissimilar to True Blood’s Lafayette.

This is a solid opening shot from Banshee. There was a lot to take in but that made for a time flying hour of television. Crucially, we’ve got a set of characters here that are interesting and we’re already starting to care about what may happen to them. That’s half the battle won already.

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