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March Comes in Like a Banshee, Goes Out Like a Midwife
March 15, 2013  | By Eric Gould

The TVWW team has remarked on it before, but it bears repeating: the mayhem of some shows seems intent on being so over the top that it's a heated race to the bottom to see who can be the more depraved.

Boardwalk Empire hit a few new TV lows in its second season with an on-camera slaughter house-style bloodletting and a scalping. But American Horror Story (right) may be the guiltiest of all. It has showcased all kinds of dark vivisection and punitive shock therapy. But it's arguable that AHS is intent on capturing true terrors of the mind, and these things can certainly be found there.

It's equally as arguable, though, that because of its lo-fi stylization (and it is beautiful) AHS crosses into the realm of, as one TVWW reader called it, "torture porn." (We sort of liked that comparison, too.)

There are still other examples. FX's new series, The Americans had an on-screen impaling via a barbecue fork to the nether parts in its second episode. Fox's The Following brands itself on its use of spiraling, baroque levels of Hannibal Lechter-style depravity. On AMC's The Walking Dead (left), even the dead need to be killed, and decomposing zombies make for particularly gruesome victims. And not too long ago the website Funeralwise.com reported that the STARZ series Spartacus: Vengeance topped all TV shows in the death department with an average of 25 dead bodies per episode (with most, appropriately, killed by slow-motion swords).

In this day of over-the-top torture and killings, we do occasionally see old-school violence. FX's Justified, an epic long-poem of hillbilly noir and the battle for power across generations, had its share of Shakespearean poisonings in season three. And it wound things a little higher last season (and this one, too) with a couple of well-fallen limbs via butcher knives. Mostly, though, punishments are delivered with a dark wink and sarcasm, and that's part of the Southern Gothic charm of the show. And true to the Justified brand, villains in Harlan County, Kentucky usually just get shot to hell, because the heart (and fun) of the show is following U.S. Marshal Rayland Givens (Timothy Olyphant, above right), a modern-day gunslinger.

Then there's Cinemax's Banshee, which finishes up its first season this Friday, March 15, at 10 p.m. ET. Because it's on a pay-cable network, Banshee has no limits, and does things basic cable shows like Sons of Anarchy only wish they could do. Not content to turn it up to eleven on a one-to-ten scale, Banshee punches, kicks and smashes its way to twelve and higher.

Maybe because it's based on a graphic novel of the same name, or more likely, because they want to be the pulpiest of pulp fiction, the men in Banshee have outdone most of what's been done on TV to date. They've smashed in skulls with 50 pound lifting weights, punched the other guy in the face with a stapler, kicked out teeth, cut off fingers, and off-camera, cut up a guy in a slaughter house with a chainsaw.

I loved the idea of Banshee in the beginning; it was a tantalizing story of an ex-con (Antony Starr, a color-coordinated part of the buffet, left) taking on the job of small-town sheriff in Banshee, Pennsylvania, after the real newly-hired candidate gets killed in a bar fight before starting his new gig. After a few unlikely internet hacking fixes, he takes on the identity of the missing cop, Lucas Hood, and presto, the con is officially the new lawman in Banshee.

The scenario created a crook with a conscience, holding a position of ill-gained authority. Suddenly he finds himself having to make choices to do the morally right thing for the innocents around him. It was an extreme-reverse of the Don Draper Mad Men idea, a bad guy gone good, but who's similarly hiding in plain sight. While it was an elaborate, silly conceit, it had legs.

I also loved the claustrophobic setting of the town, a sort of pseudo-repertory playhouse where all the unlikely plot lines could flourish, away from real societal structures and be free to run to their wildest ends. Banshee even had an Amish mafia, headed by a local king-pin (Ulrich Thomsen) who had abandoned his faith for a life of crime. Yes, the show's unlikely scenarios were preposterous. But the storylines could be somehow accepted on their own isolated terms and within its remote Pennsylvania bubble, much like we see happening in Sons of Anarchy's fictional town of Charming, California.

Banshee seemed promising until the stomach-turning nihilistic antics became a weekly occurence. Oy, the dental bills and orthopedic rehab that would result from just one of these melees, and Sheriff Hood is involved with one or more every week.

One recent tweet about the show, which I loved, remarked that the Banshee fights were getting "longer and more ridiculous than Peter Griffin vs. The Chicken" on Family Guy. In this season's episode eight, two Banshee characters fought throughout the entire episode, looking as though they broke every bone in each other's body. In the end they were both still able to muster enough strength to spit a few witty wisecracks through bloodied lips.

We will find out in Friday's season finale if Sheriff Hood can outwit the mobsters he stole from before his 15-year prison stay, and then Banshee slips into hibernation, just as TV's tamer series step into the light.

Maybe it's not a coincidence that, as we toss off our winter coats, TV puts its more aggressive, mayhem-filled shows to rest and brings milder entertainment to the masses.

The HBO political comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep, returns for its second season on March 26. And Sarah Chalke, of Scrubs and Roseanne fame, returns to primetime with a new ABC series, How to Live with Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life) on April 3. Chalke's show is about a boomerang single mom who, with her daughter, returns home to live with her eccentric, liberal parents. (It seems to have some wit, and some promise.) On April 7, the period drama that annually appears on most critics' Top Ten lists — Mad Men — returns. And it's probably safe to say that none of the characters in any of these shows will require corrective dental work before the end of the premiere episode.

Best of all, the BBC series Call the Midwife will slip onto the schedule, returning for its second season on Sunday, March 31 at 9 p.m. ET. (Check local listings.) We'll soon have a full review of the first two episodes of Season 2, but for now we'll just say that they're wonderful, although perhaps a touch too reliant on structures that were established last season.

Forget co-eds on sandy beaches. On television, spring break means a vacation from aggression and a return to calmer drama. And that's a good thing, because, after a while, watching endless bloody impalements and constant creative carnage can make a viewer feel as though he's had his head rammed through the glass door of a microwave. As far as being assaulted with a kitchen appliance, I'm not speaking from first-hand experience. But I can imagine what it feels like — I saw it happen on Banshee.

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