While Starz was making headlines last year by partnering with the BBC on what would turn out to be the disappointing Torchwood: Miracle Day miniseries, Cinemax was airing its own, more successful British co-production: Strike Back, a macho thriller that had originated on Sky1 in 2010. The 2011 Strike Back series was called Strike Back: Project Dawn in the UK, and is called Strike Back: Cinemax Season One on its new DVD/Blu-ray set, though it’s actually season two. The second season consists of 10 episodes, broken into five two-parters, all adding up to one big story. In the first two episodes, season one’s main hero Richard Armitage is kidnapped by the lackeys of a terrorist played by Jimi Mistry, and American stud-soldier Sullivan Stapleton and British commando Philip Winchester are drafted by the UK secret agency Section 20 (and its steely boss Amanda Mealing) to try to rescue Armitage. In subsequent episodes, Stapleton and Winchester hop around the globe, edging closer to Mistry through various espionage, undercover, and military operations. The structure of Strike Back is simple: In the first episode of each two-parter, Stapleton and Winchester are given their assignment and get boots on the ground, usually guided from afar by Mealing; in the second, they find themselves in an impossible, no-escape situation, and work their way out through guile and brute force.
Is the show too simple? To some extent, sure. Strike Back isn’t Emmy or BAFTA bait. It’s a stylish show about burly men with different accents and skin tones shooting guns at each other across artfully lit compounds. The dialogue is frequently dumb and clichéd (“We talked about this; you can’t save everyone!”), the supporting characters are almost all broad types (a typical introduction to a new character: “Journo. War zone junkie. We fucked a couple times.”), and the creators are so committed to titillation that they find ways to work in loud, explicit sex scenes even when the heroes are in life-or-death trouble.
But while pay cable traditionally has been the place to go for smart, “serious” TV, it’s also been the place to find the kind of shows that aren’t on the networks anymore—and since the end of 24 and The Unit, there haven’t been that many shows as action-packed and ambitious in scope as Strike Back. It’s not just that Strike Back reliably delivers gore, jiggle, and outsized setpieces; it’s also in the spirit of classic TV action fare like Miami Vice, where the look, mood, and overall sense of toughness are the selling points. Strike Back doesn’t duck questions about the ethics or human cost of covert action, but the series is more about doing than thinking. And in a TV landscape dominated by procedurals set in sterile rooms with banks of super-computers, it’s good to see a show that heads out into the field, where people get their hands bloody.
Key features: Cast and crew commentaries on selected episodes, and downloads via the “Cinemax Select” service.