Flipping Channels: Banshee Howls Tonight on Cinemax

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Even though the New Year brings some fresh network programs, it's also the time the cable outlets enter the fray with both debuts and returning programs. With hundreds of channels in the cable/satellite universe, being able to start and popularize brands that distinguish an operation is everyone's ultimate goal.

Cinemax's mode is outlandish action/suspense, much of it tied to espionage (Strike Back, Hunted), plus "adult" fare designed for late nights and weekends. We'll leave evaluation and coverage of their softcore product to Playboy.

The newest in their original line borrows a page from FX. Banshee, which premieres 9 p.m. tonight, isn't set in an exotic European capital or distant African nation. There's no super-secret bunch of spies or operatives. Instead, the locale is rural Pennsylvania, and the hero (or anti-hero) is an ex-con who assumes a lawman's identity.

Banshee is the name of the backwoods town where Lucas Hood (portrayed by Antony Starr) serves as bogus sheriff while seeking a reunion with former partner/lover Carrie Hopewell (Ivana Milicevic), who's got her own masquerade going. She's married to the local district attorney and is a suburban mother of two. Amazingly, her husband Gordon (Rus Blackwell) knows zero about her background, and the couple are really in love (or so it would seem).

There are two other wild cards in this deck. One is a Ukrainian gangster named Mr. Rabbit (played, believe it or not, by Chariots of Fire's Ben Cross). More than 15 years ago Lucas and Carrie stole millions from him and he's anxious to get even with both of them. There's also the man who actually runs the town, Kal Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen). He's Amish but very contemporary, both in outlook and actions.

This will either be quite enjoyable or a real disaster, and judging from past Cinemax productions, on some weeks it may simultaneously be both. But the production team of Stephanie Laing (Veep, Eastbound and Down), Alan Ball (True Blood, Six Feet Under) and Greg Yaitanes (House) has a strong track record, and the terrific comic novelist Jonathan Tropper (This Is Where I Leave You) is co-writer and co-creator. Watch also for veteran Nashville stage actor Jessejames Locorriere in a recurring supporting role.

Justified unholsters its guns
Speaking of FX, the great Elmore Leonard has given very few adaptations of his work universal praise, but that network's Justified is one of them. As its current season ramps up, central figure U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, in a wonderful portrayal) has pretty much hit bottom.

Givens is now moonlighting as a bounty hunter and living above a bar that truly epitomizes the word "dive." But he's drawn back into the world of marshals when someone he thought long dead resurfaces, anxious to ensure Givens is eliminated.

Patton Oswalt has joined the cast as an ineffective local constable, a role that in lesser hands would be fodder for dreary Southern redneck stereotype. That's not the case here, and it's a treat to see Justified back on the schedule. It airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m.

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