Strike Back: Saluting a Great Action TV Series

With plenty of macho fights, practical stunts and shoot-outs, Strike Back was an uncomplicated action TV show par excellence...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Action series Strike Back is destined to never be included in the pantheon of great TV shows. While The Sopranos or Breaking Bad are held in such high regard for their superlative writing, acting and drama, Strike Back will instead be remembered for the kick-ass action, gratuitous nudity and excellent chemistry between the lead actors.  

For fans of the show, that’s a good enough legacy.

So what is it about Strike Back – which can best be described as the lovechild of 24 and a Cannon Group action movie – that works so well? In this case it might just the very thing that keeps it off the ‘Greatest TV Shows Ever’ lists; its simplicity. For the most part the show is a meat-and-potatoes action thriller, containing all the elements that have been gradually eroded from the genre on the big screen over the last decade; namely blood, bad language and good old-fashioned practical stunts and effects. The show isn’t particularly interested in examining the tortured psyches of the characters or their moral quandaries, though that side of things does feature. 

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The show has a slightly complicated origin, starting life as a book by former soldier Chris Ryan which was then adapted by Sky One in 2010. In the original series Richard Armitage played John Porter, a disgraced soldier recruited by a secret branch of the British military. His job was to run around the globe tackling various threats while his shady boss – played by Andrew Lincoln – did his best to cover up a mistake from his past.

All said and done, it was a solid six-episode run, but looking back on series one it feels like a prototype for what the show would become. It has the same basic formula and high-octane action, but it feels like it’s missing a certain something that would really make it pop. Season one has since become the odd man out with the rest of the series, and was even redubbed Strike Back: Origins for its belated American debut in 2013. 

The second series brought some major changes; American network Cinemax (nicknamed Skinemax for their focus on er, adult-orientated programming) came on to co-produce with Sky – upping the scale and scope of the series – but with Armitage busy filming The Hobbit two new characters were brought on in his place. This turned out to be a stroke of luck because the new leads – Sullivan Stapleton and Philip Winchester as Scott and Stonebridge respectively – were the missing ingredients that made the show click into place.

The two men share a chemistry that rivals the best buddy comedies, and they’re an absolute delight to watch. Scott is the womanizing, chain-smoking wisecracker with hints of a dark past, while Stonebridge is more sensible and thinks before he acts; which isn’t saying much because he’s also willing to shoot his way out of – or into – trouble. The two men may bicker from time to time, but there’s an honest-to-goodness friendship between them that grounds the show.

Strike Back also has a great line-up of villains (and some borderline incestuous ties with Games Of Thrones) with Charles Dance, Iain Glen, Liam Cunningham and Roose Bolton himself, Michael McElhatton, taking on bad guy duties throughout the various seasons.

Action is the show’s mission statement, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front. The average episode has – and I’ve done the math – at least two gunfights or sex scenes, and there’s something refreshing about its commitment to indulging the audience’s baser instincts. It’s not a po-faced procedural and it offers no insightful commentary on the state of the world; Strike Back just wants you to sit back and have fun. Enjoy that shootout, snicker at the silly one-liner or roll your eyes at yet another explicit sex scene. It’s the best kind of brain-dead entertainment; smartly made, emotionally engaging brain-dead entertainment.

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Another thing that makes Strike Back stand out is that it genuinely feels unique, for both movies and television. It’s a propulsive, action driven show featuring real stunts, real squibs and a tactile reality absent from the likes of Furious 7 or The Expendables, and all the action is wonderfully staged by directors including Michael J. Bassett and Julian Holmes. There’s a visceral quality to the best setpieces, where the bullets whizzing past or the crunch of a car crash can be felt. The show has very little filler to pad things out, plus the structure of a season (ten episodes split into two arcs) allow it to constantly change up the scenery and supporting characters, so there’s little time for boredom.  

This kind of relentless pacing can be hard to maintain, and truthfully the show does have a few lulls now and again. But the fact it managed to feel so fresh and vibrant throughout its five-year run is no mean feat. The show’s lack of political correctness might not be a plus for some viewers though; Scott seems to bed about half the female cast and there’s no complicated terrorist threat that can’t be resolved with a burst of machine gun fire. 

That’s not to say the show doesn’t have some badass women; Michelle Yeoh made for a formidable and surprisingly complex villain in the final season, and Michelle Lukes as Richmond more than held her own against her male co-stars. And in a nod to equality, both Scott and Stonebridge aren’t afraid to lose their clothes should the scene require it; or even when it doesn’t. For all the kudos Strike Back receives for its action, it really is the characters who keep the audience engaged. Both Scott and Stonebridge change and evolve throughout the show, and their relationship with each other and their teammates – many of whom have a short life expectancy – is ultimately the key to what makes the show work.

Perhaps part of the show’s appeal is that – like Cinemax’s other cult hit Banshee – it embraces the silly macho action fantasy, at a time when nearly everything else is trying to subvert or be ironic about it. Strike Back ended with its fifth season in 2015, though recent talk of taking it to the big screen is getting the fanbase – which includes Bill Clinton apparently – all excited. The show has a big beating heart to go along the action, and while it might not be lauded the same way as some of its peers, it’s still an addictive joyride.