It is a resounding truth that the best work in television these days is being done on cable. The soapy, poorly acted, and ad-filled network fare simply cannot compete. Given the production schedule, it is every producer’s dream to do a 13 episode season on HBO rather than a 22 episode season on one of the networks. Add to that the restrictions on nudity, language, and violence, there is just more creative freedom and the ability to foster superior production values on the cable end of the spectrum.
However, it is a little bit of a stretch to call cable offerings the second coming of Charles Dickens. I never bought into The Wire or Treme, both from producer David Simon, as being “Dickensian.” Nice try. I’m sure if Dickens were alive and kicking today, he might be tempted to write for television. After all, he did serialize his novels in popular magazines of the time. But every art form is unique to itself. Television can be great art in its own right (and certainly Simon’s work fits that description), and that is exactly what’s happening now. It used to be the case that movie actors flocked to television when their careers were washed up, and television actors often tried to vault the fortress walls surrounding a movie career with limited success. Nowadays, actors jump into cable television with regularity because the best work in film is being done there, pure and simple.
Two shows have caught my eye recently, one of which is under-rated, the other earns its critical acclaim every minute of every episode, and is quite simply the best thing going right now.
It is easy to dismiss Banshee (Cinemax, Fridays at 9 PM) as an ultra-violent, literal grindhouse blood fest (a recent episode featured a murder victim being consumed in close up by an industrial meat grinder). But there is some fine writing and acting going on, and the violence, while over-the-top, is operatic in its scope and sequence. It is the guiltiest of pleasures, and I revel in the plot’s twists and turns.
Currently approaching the end of its second season, Banshee is the brainchild of Jonathan Topper and David Schickler, who wrote the pilot as well as many first season episodes. The showrunner is Greg Yaitanes, a veteran of Fox’s House M.D. Alan Ball of True Blood and Six Feet Under fame produces the show under his Your Face Goes Here Entertainment banner.
The show contains clearly drawn good guys and bad guys, although the writers never hesitate to put unlikely bedfellows into the sack together. Actually, the literal commingling is mostly left to lead actor Anthony Starr, with whom nearly every female character in the cast has slept with at least once. Being Cinemax (or Skinemax, as some call it), the nudity is profound and abundant. Starr plays the small town sheriff in Banshee, a supposedly multi-cultural rural backwater in Pennsylvania featuring the Amish, Native Americans, skinheads, and a heist trio hiding from a vaguely Eastern European gangster named Rabbit, played deliciously by Chariots of Fire’s Ben Cross. In this show, nothing is as it seems, and Starr has a wealth of secrets in his past, most prominent being he is not the person he claims to be, having assumed the incoming sheriff’s identity when the original is murdered on his way into town to take over the job. Yes, it is a huge conceit and a difficult one to swallow realistically, but it works. Starr’s Sheriff Lucas Hood works to uphold the law while often taking matters into his own hands. Meanwhile, he is one of those former thieves Rabbit is looking for, mainly because they double-crossed him. For added motivation, Rabbit’s daughter is also hiding in Banshee, comfortably married to the district attorney when the show opens. Hood and Carrie, Rabbit’s daughter, had a thing back when they were pulling heists, and one of the pleasures of the show is watching the frustration and pain Starr imbues his character with, often conveyed simply with his sad eyes, when he realizes that what he had with Carrie is now seemingly lost. Carrie, played by Ivana Milicevic, is often forced to choose between her new family and her old ties to Lucas Hood. It is a case of torturous divided loyalties that keeps the angst flowing in every scene.
One of the meatier roles, and a highlight of the show, is Hoon Lee, who plays the third thief Job, a computer wizard who never met a system he could not hack. Lee plays him as a transvestite with the sharpest of wits who spars regularly, and for comic relief, with barkeep Sugar, a former boxer played by Frankie Faison. Their relationship is not to be missed in the show. Ulrich Thomsen plays the town’s dark force, a former Amish who has turned into a menacing and murderous gangster accompanied by his mostly mute but lethal henchman, Burton.
All of these characters, and indeed the town of Banshee itself, make for an almost comic book heroes-and-villains tale, with twists and turns of plot, and surprises lurking around every corner. It is interesting that the show is promoted in its second season using a kind of comic book Americana poster illustrating bloodshed and mayhem. A particularly good second season episode actually was the show’s least violent, until the very end. Written by Third Watch and Hill Street Blues veteran scribe, John Romano, “The Truth About Unicorns,” directed by Babak Najafi, finds Hood and Carrie returning from Carrie’s brief stay in prison. They detour to a house that Hood has purchased in the hopes that he and Carrie can somehow reunite and live there peacefully. Of course, that is not the case, but the moody and surreal visuals, coupled with the startling juxtaposition of images make for a beautifully shot and executed episode.
The second major piece of art on cable television these days is HBO’s True Detective, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. The show takes what could be the tired tropes of the police procedural and makes them fresh and tense again. According to HBO, the show will run for eight episodes this season (next Sunday, 9 PM is the season finale) with McConaughey and Harrelson as the leads, and then return with a totally new cast for a second season. Nic Pizzolatto is the writer for all eight, and he is paired with Cary Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, 2011) as director. So the show is really an eight hour movie, written and directed by the same team throughout, which leads to a visual and verbal consistency unmatched on any other show. McConaughey and Harrelson are doing their best work, and if the whole thing doesn’t sweep the Emmys in the fall, I’d be shocked.
McConaughey plays the deeply introspective and damaged Rust Cohle, thrown together with good old boy Detective Marty Hart played by Harrelson. In the pilot, the two are called out to the scene of a puzzling murder scene: the dead woman is posed, nude and kneeling, with antlers strapped to her head and a strange swirling diagram tattooed on her back. Surrounding the scene are small, teepee-like stick structures that exude malevolence. Cohle sketches out the scene in a ledger book and considers the occult overtones present in the murder. Hart stands back, obviously unmoored by the grisly crime.
From there, we launch into an exploration of Gulf Coast voodoo and religious fanaticism, dark figures with animal faces, and other ritualistic harbingers of something evil and menacing. The first few episodes are admittedly slow, but this is television for the thinking person, and the team does not cut to car chases and shootouts to keep viewers. When the violence occurs, Fukunaga composes the scene with a swift and terrible beauty, a darkness that both shatters and horrifies the audience. The show, though, is not about murder. In fact, as the finale approaches, it is not all that difficult to see who is behind the murders. Pizzolatto has said as much in interviews; the murderer of the initial victim appears to be decommissioned by the middle episodes. The show is about the two main characters and their relationship as well as the evil in human nature. There are elements of religion, philosophy, nihilism, and emptiness in the post-modern landscape. It is a dark and perverse view of mankind, and our two characters wade through the muck with their deeply damaged psyches and their crumbling lives. It is riveting television, much richer than many theatrical films released today.
Matthew McConaughey is transcendent. His work establishes him here as a major actor in his field, and coupled with his Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club, there is no doubt he is doing the best work of his career. Harrelson is equal to the challenge, playing Hart with a barely restrained fury that often explodes into violent rage, especially when confronted with crimes against children. Michelle Monaghan plays Hart’s suffering wife who comes between the partners. Many critics have knocked the show for not developing female characters, or indeed any character outside of the two leads, but I did not find fault with this. In an eight episode season, the story must be trimmed and made lean and mean. That it is. HBO has not renewed the show for a second season, and most critics believe they are waiting to sign on the new actors and maybe a new writer-director team before making the announcement.
Both shows can be found on Cinemax and HBO as well as On Demand.
Is television literature? No, it is a visual medium. Could television replace books and literature? I believe writing a novel and making a film are two different artistic forms. Yes, a good film or television script is necessary for the success of the production, but television and film are collaborative mediums involving often many writers, a director, artists, sound engineers, et cetera. The writer working alone in the garret is a novelist’s conceit. I tend to think in broader strokes: why can’t we have literary television and movies as well as novels and nonfiction? The human condition is always enriched with story, whatever the form, and when the narrative pulls us in and offers what Aristotle called a catharsis, it is all good. Watch these shows.
Here is one of the high points of Cary Fukunaga's direction: an uninterrupted six minute tracking shot done all in one take.
And here is the second season trailer for Banshee: