The Joy of Cinemax

HBO's little brother has embraced a decided lack of prestige to assure its position in original programming. It's an oddly exciting and mostly unheralded development that speaks to the ever-deepening and refreshing pool of available television.

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It may not seem like anything worth caring about to most people, really: Cinemax has renewed its new show Banshee for a second season, after three episodes. It's just some random show on Cinemax, that cheesy porn-lite channel, right? Wrong! With the renewal of this new series — a gritty, gory, only kinda sorta corny crime show about depraved small-town America — Cinemax is working to assure a position as a true network of original programming. It's an oddly exciting and mostly unheralded development that speaks to the ever-deepening and refreshing pool of available television.

Look, Cinemax's three big shows right now aren't going to win many awards — ones that aren't for stunt work, anyway. And that's... OK. The goods are great fun nonetheless. The network's first show, Strike Back, a co-production with British broadcaster Sky, is a T&A action riot that eschews geopolitical nuance for guns-blazing bravado and is all the more enjoyable for it. Its attitude toward pesky things like extreme civilian collateral damage would be deplorable if it was the real world, but it's not, so who really cares? Not caring too much about the actual nuts and bolts of global intelligence, the show is international fun — last season told an unexpectedly complex story of nuclear armament and nation-building in Africa. And, rather surprisingly, the great Charles Dance showed up to play the season's main villain, giving it enough gusto to override most of the too-easy plot contrivances. All the neat explosions took care of the rest.

Hunted, another British co-production (this time with the BBC), is a subtler and decidedly smarter affair, a domestic spy drama about a wronged superagent (Melissa George) seeking undercover revenge. Its first season had more satisfyingly knotty mythology than Homeland, but blessedly didn't take itself so damn seriously. Sure, George's Sam Hunter (get the title now?) may be the worst spy ever — breaking into the bad guy's office in broad daylight while he's in the other room is maybe not the best idea! — but she's an intriguing central figure nonetheless. George was supported ably by the likes of Stephen Dillane and confirmed dreamboat Adam Rayner, playing shadowy colleagues/potential foes of Sam's with lots of pleasing modulation and mystery. The first season ended with a wonderful twist, something we couldn't see coming miles away, like, say Abu Nazir's wicked master plan. Classier than Strike Back but no less viscerally engaging, Hunted was an unexpected highlight of the late-2012 TV season. We were sad to hear that the BBC has dropped its partnership with the show and that Hunted's second season will likely look very different because of it, but at least creator Frank Spotnitz and his star are still aboard.

And then there's Banshee, which is definitely the weirdest of the three series. Set in rural-ish Pennsylvania, the show focuses on an ex-con who turns up in the titular town to find his long-lost lady love, only to wind up becoming the sheriff by way of a deadly fight and a case of mistaken identity. He squares off against the de facto town leader, a sinister fellow with evil henchmen and ties to the Amish community. At just three episodes in, Banshee is already an engaging potboiler, at turns silly and kinda sexy. It's Cinemax's first purely native show, and it indicates good things for the future. That future includes another action series, called Sandbox, and, supposedly, a TV version of the Transporter films. So, Cinemax knows its brand. It's action with a dash of wit, plus just enough oddity to keep it original. It's FX to HBO's AMC.

Cinemax is lucky to be owned by HBO — they don't have to compete with their polished, prestige-ified big brother. Unlike Showtime, Cinemax does not seem burdened with aspirations of grandeur; they can roll around in the muck and grunt all they want. This is not, for time being anyway, a network that's trying to win any Peabodys. That's a nice change of pace for non-HBO premium cable. Hopefully the dribbles of praise they've been getting of late won't go to their heads. I like the network muscly and goofy; swagger and sweat become it, and too much glossiness wouldn't. I like also what Cinemax's recent intriguing developments suggest about another evolution of the television landscape. They're now succeeding where Starz largely stumbled and failed. So maybe we're truly ready for another round of new offerings. And, lo, here comes House of Cards on Netflix, as well as the rebooted, slimmed-down Arrested Development. And, further off, there will be whatever Amazon Studios turns into. Hopefully expectations can be managed on these new platforms and they'll succeed at courting a niche audience rather than flailing after wider appeal.

For the time being, it's good news about Banshee. It's nice that Cinemax is committed to its grimy genre programming. There might be room for some elegance here and there in the years to come, but for now it's plenty fun chewing on the gristle. To the max!

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.