Cultural Checkup: Cinemax’s Strike Back
September 24th, 2011
There are a number of logical parallels between Cinemax’s Strike Back and Starz’s Torchwood: Miracle Day. Not only did they share the same timeslot for a number of weeks this summer, and not only are they both ten-episode “series” which somewhat strangely spin off of a pre-existing franchise, but they’re also both international co-productions in which an American premium cable outlet joined forces with a British broadcaster (Sky1 for Strike Back and the BBC for Torchwood).
However, they’re parallels that most people aren’t making since no one, it seems, has been talking about Strike Back, an action drama being shepherded by a collection of British writers and Frank Spotnitz (best known for his work on The X-Files). Admittedly, this is logical so long as we are speaking comparatively: Torchwood is an established franchise with an extensive fanbase that spawns extensive discussion, whereas Strike Back has fewer generic qualities which would traditionally lend themselves to weekly critical consideration (or even online discussion, in general).
That being said, though, it’s quite likely that there are a large number of critics who have been silently keeping up with Strike Back; indeed, every time I tweet about the show I get a couple of replies from people who started to realize they really liked the show at about the same time as the run-up to the fall premiere season kicked in and their time disappeared. It’s the time of year when catching up on a show is a daunting task, a time of year where it’s easier to erase something from your memory (or your DVR’s memory, at least) than wading in for a closer look.
However, since I’ve been able to lie low (relatively speaking) during premiere week, I’m in a position where I can talk a bit about how a show that goes out of its way to create opportunities for softcore pornography managed to stealthily become one of the most enjoyable drama series of the summer by developing an intelligent mix of episodic and serialized storytelling that Russell T. Davies might want to study a bit more closely for next time around.
In the fantastic two-parter that ended last night on Cinemax, Section 20 (a secret unit within British intelligence) took part in a black ops mission in Darfur which had them cooperating with an arms dealer in an effort to rescue his daughter – an aide worker – from a tribe of armed mercenaries in exchange for information regarding the operations of global terrorist Latif, who I guess we could call the “big bad” in the Strike Back universe.
It was actually the third two-parter that the show has done, as its first six episodes have been divided up into three separate arcs all tied to Section 20’s search for Latif, and all taking place in different locations around the world (including India and South Africa, where the show is shot). The show obviously owes a debt to shows like 24, as you could easily see Jack Bauer being dropped into one of these situations and there’s some occasional talk about “moles” (even if they never quite use the word), but the focus on (two-part) episodic stories is a departure from the singular thread that the FOX series tries to cultivate in each season.
It’s also what has allowed the show to be successful. Strike Back is not a particularly subtle show, which is why the two-part structures work to its advantage: it allows the show to set up a situation, deliver a game-changing cliffhanger, and then build towards an exciting climax. While 24 always struggled to stretch out the seasonal arc into twenty-four episodes (or at least eight to ten episodes, at which point the story could be rebooted), Strike Back has made no attempts at creating a full ten-episode arc. It’s not exactly a new narrative form, as it’s not far removed from what the modern Doctor Who does within its series, but it feels particularly useful within this genre. If you’re making a show that promises action, and in which you want the stakes to remain high at all points, the easiest way to avoid killing momentum is (oddly enough) resetting the clock every two episodes.
Let’s run with the clock metaphor for a moment: while the minute and second hands might be reset every two episodes, the hour hand keeps moving at its regular (albeit slow) pace. The show has kept Latif in the foreground throughout the first six episodes, even though he only appeared in the two-parter that started the season, and more importantly the long-term impact of the search for Latif has been played out within Section 20 itself. While the setting and the story may reset every two episodes, the characters have shown something much closer to what we’d expect from a serialized drama, and something that 24 was never able to really show given its temporal limitations. It’s the perfect blend of serialized and episodic narratives, as the characters become more complex with each passing week and yet the show is still able to focus on isolated stories that can have a clear beginning, middle and end. The show has never felt like a work-in-progress, even as it slowly introduced the characters and their points of view; instead of watching the hour hand waiting for it to bloody well move already, we’re too busy with the second and minute hands to worry about it.
What Strike Back has done particularly well is finding ways to give into excess (made possible by the wonders of premium cable) that don’t move the show too far away from its narrative stakes. The show has found plenty of excuses to include sex, most of it involving Sullivan Stapleton’s Damien Scott, but it has been treated as an isolated component of the show that is pitched as a brief respite – either dramatic or comic – from the chaos of armed conflict rather than its central purpose. Similarly, the show is unafraid to break out the giant explosions and the gruesome deaths, but the show also isn’t afraid to get more cerebral and psychological with its action sequences. While there are moments where the sex and violence are designed purely to excite, they have never felt wholly disconnected from the show around them; Scott has a lot of sex, and the show has an extremely high body count, but neither feels as though it becomes the point of the whole exercise.
It also helps that the show has been tremendously well cast and, perhaps more importantly, is incredible to look at. While the regular cast has been solid, with Stapleton (playing the undisciplined American) and Philip Winchester (playing the [relatively] disciplined Brit) providing a solid odd couple anchor, it’s the guest casting that has been particularly strong. Liam Cunningham, soon to be seen as Davos Seaworth on HBO’s Game of Thrones, was a disarming presence as the villain the episodes three and four, while his co-star Iain Glen (Game of Thrones‘ Ser Jorah Mormont) and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Lost‘s Mr. Eko) played pivotal roles in episodes five and six. The show has also taken advantage of shooting in South Africa, delivering some tremendous location shooting that contributes a sense of scale alongside a boost in authenticity (especially when they were shooting the city as itself).
To be clear, Strike Back is well aware that it isn’t a “prestige” drama series, and I say all of this knowing full well that this isn’t going to enter into that pantheon. However, as Alan Sepinwall put it on Twitter last week, the show is better than it needs to be: there are a number of scenes where the writers and the production crew have gone out of their way to turn what could be a purely functional scene into something that’s honestly quite spectacular. The fifth episode could have started with a small-scale kidnapping, but instead it starts with an armed tribesman riding a horse through a fiery building in order to run down the aide workers trying to escape both the invaders and the flames. There’s something playful about moments like that one, but it never felt like a farce, and ended up being a harrowing start to a two-parter that despite being a “stand-alone” had incredibly high stakes. Characters were well-developed, early narrative events were paid off as part of the conclusion, and characters who could have been purely incidental were given a sense of purpose and a sense of story that allows you to picture their life before and after the episode comes to an end. It may not be able to compete with the narrative pleasures of multi-season arcs on a show like Breaking Bad, but it’s a different sort of narrative pleasure that I wish we saw more often within more traditional procedurals.
Many of these pleasures are small, brief moments of appreciation that have no connection to long-term storytelling, but that’s what elevates a show like Strike Back. One of the things that drove me away from Miracle Day is that there were no small pleasures: everything was so wrapped up in the larger conspiracy that there was nothing else for me to latch onto, no takeaways that could satisfy on a weekly basis given that everything hinged on the big reveals. As brash as Strike Back might seem on the surface, and as much as I would argue they have made some bold storytelling decisions on both micro- and macro-levels, the narrative structure they’ve developed is far more safe than the ten-episode arc that Davies tried to manage with Torchwood. And while the lack of a high-concept premise meant that Strike Back arrived under the radar earlier this summer, I’ve come to like the show more with each passing week, which is perhaps the most important criteria for a new series.
I can’t predict what kind of Top 10 lists I’ll have by the end of the year, but I will say that Strike Back has a fairly good chance of being on it. Even if it pales in comparison to the best in serialized dramas (see: Breaking Bad), and even if its generic qualities are far more familiar than the year’s most interesting shows (see: Louie), there is something enormously satisfying about a fun, action-packed show made by people who aren’t content to phone it in. While the show may be most basically separated from fare like 24 through the swearing, the gruesome deaths, and the exotic locales, the real separation runs much deeper within the show’s narrative structure, and at this point I’m keeping my HBO/Cinemax subscription more for Strike Back than anything airing on HBO this fall.
And that surprises me as much as it might surprise you.
- While the first two-parter was solid, and the second had some great moments, the third really was a step above: the action was more dynamic, the sex was less random, and the casting really was superb. I still think people should start from the beginning if they’re interested, especially based on some serial elements that play a key role in the episodes, but I think Episodes Five and Six tell a fantastic standalone story as well.
- To be clear, don’t go in expecting incredibly complex characters: while Winchester’s Stonebridge has had a pretty interesting arc that really paid off in the most recent episodes, the rest of the characters are caught somewhere between one and three dimensions. However, the show hasn’t asked them to be more than that, and the more we see them in different situations the more their personalities start to form.
- I’m fascinated by the production history of the show, which I had no idea about before watching the premiere: this is technically the second series of Strike Back, and the star of the first series is actually featured in the first episode of this series in a guest capacity. The show is definitely not bothering to pretend that a previous season existed, using Scott’s introduction as a pivot point, which is definitely a unique situation as far as development goes (as it allows Cinemax to sell it as a new series, and Sky1 to sell it as a continuation of a franchise).
- In comparison to Torchwood, you can see how Strike Back is aiming towards American audiences with Scott coming in as the American working within a British unit. The show has also worked to bring other Americans into the story, but never so much as to make it seem particularly obnoxious. The show has also avoided obsessing over the transatlanticism of it all, which is to its advantage when we make the comparison.
- Was really taken with Laura Haddock in parts five and six, only to discover that she’s also Will’s love interest in The Inbetweeners Movie, which is shattering box office records in the U.K. right now. I spent my summer reviewing the third series of The Inbetweeners for The A.V. Club, so that was a fun little connection for me.
- I had never seen Liam Cunningham in anything before this, but he was a pretty fantastic villain in episodes three and hour – not sure if it’s a performance that really foreshadows what he might be able to bring to the role of Davos on Game of Thrones, but I could see flickers here and there, and am definitely excited to see what he does with the character.