In an article from last year, Willa Paskin of Slate ably diagnoses everything wrong with typical television action scenes:
These are a very specific kind of fight scene. Monster punches are thrown, but are only ever filmed from behind the person being hit, so the punches never have to land. Furniture is broken and guns are brandished but dropped. The protagonist either wins (if the fight takes place at the end of the episode), or loses in some inconsequential way (if it takes place in the middle). The outcome is never in doubt. You can fast-forward, go the bathroom, text or read the Internet while these fights are taking place and miss nothing.
As with many issues in TV, these problematic patterns can be traced to shortages of both production time and funding. Fight scenes are hard work; it takes a lot of time to storyboard them, longer to choreograph each individual punch, and even longer still to then carry out the process of blocking characters, cameras, and props within a location. They’re usually grueling for actors and stunt doubles to film, as the normal process of shooting multiple takes is amplified by the daunting physical exertion that's required in addition to "just" acting.
That’s before you get to the makeup and/or visual effects work required to create the wounds that fighters sustain, to say nothing of ensuring that continuity is preserved from one shot to another. It can take multiple days to shoot what usually amounts to just a few minutes in an entire episode.
All told, fight scenes are very expensive, from both a time standpoint and a monetary one.
So, considering the fast-tracked production schedule most television adheres to, it makes perfect sense that series creators can only devote so much schedule space and budget to the battlin’ bits. Lackluster action is just one example how a good deal of TV often neglects its camerawork (because television is a so-called "writer’s medium" and so forth). But there’s a glorious flip side to this problem.
The same way that poor fight scenes are a symptom of TV's general prioritization of writing and acting over visuals, the growing trend of "cinematic television" brings with it a precious few series that can put together kick-ass fight sequences. Paskin cites Daredevil and The Americans as examples of TV series that avoid the pitfalls she describes, but the unmatched, blood-drenched king of TV fisticuffs, chases, gunfights, and more is, indisputably, Cinemax's Banshee.
Currently in its fourth (and final) season, Banshee has enjoyed supportive critical attention and a devoted fan base since it debuted in early 2013, but it’s remained sadly bereft of mainstream attention. The series is a pure pulp amalgam of They Live, the films of John Woo, half the Vertigo comics library, and every direct-to-home-video action flick ever.
Its setting — the rural hamlet of Banshee, Pennsylvania — is likewise a melting pot of idiosyncratic elements that somehow come together beautifully. Ex-Amish crime bosses, a pitiless gang based on a Native American reservation, a whole military base’s worth of corrupt soldiers, a cross-dressing hacker, and 7-foot-tall giants are somehow all crammed into the tiny town. Oh, and everyone is a martial arts expert. Everyone.
At the center of this maelstrom is a so-far nameless former thief (played by Antony Starr) who’s spent the duration of the show posing as Lucas Hood, Banshee's new sheriff. Fresh out of jail, "Hood" soon has any thought of keeping his head down dashed, as he gets wrapped up the myriad criminal threats plaguing the town, tries to win back his former partner in crime and lover (Ivana Milicevic), and finds he can’t resist the call of his old ways.
Banshee is extraordinarily over the top, yet there’s nary a joking wink to the audience anywhere in the mix.
That commitment extends to the fight scenes, each and every one of which is an exquisitely crafted labor of love. Veteran stuntman Marcus Young serves as Banshee’s fight choreographer, and the show's various directors, camera operators, and editors have done their best to bring his and the writers’ many gonzo visions to fruition. There are a scant few episodes that don’t contain at least one action scene that’s superior to 99 percent of what Hollywood’s blockbusters have to offer.
Where most TV shows misstep, Banshee effortlessly pirouettes. There are many, many examples of how, but here are five of the best.
1) Fight sequences that would qualify as complete on lesser shows are just a jumping-off point for Banshee
As seen in: Carrie (Hood's old flame) versus Olek (her crime lord father's henchman) in "We Shall Live Forever" (season one, episode six)
The series' biggest set pieces all carry the same signature: Namely, the moment that would be the coup de grace for any traditional fight scene is instead merely where things really get started. Perhaps no confrontation illustrates Banshee's ability to surpass viewers' expectations better than this one, which spans nearly an entire episode (you can watch a portion of it on YouTube).
Multiple times throughout the hour, a seemingly definitive blow is struck, but then both combatants rise for another round, the plot cuts away to something else, and then we come back to these two to find them still going at it. One hallmark of a good fight scene is that the audience is sufficiently convinced the fight is taking a toll on its participants, and the brawls in Banshee are immersively exhausting. Every victory, regardless of whether it’s claimed by a good guy, bad guy, or someone in between, feels well and truly earned.
2) The show ups the ante of its fight scenes by adding difficult, unexpected complications
As seen in: The high-speed armored truck heist in "Little Fish" (season two, episode one)
You might think the quiescent pastures of Banshee's rural Pennsylvania setting would rapidly grow boring as a backdrop for action sequences. Not so. The show continually seeks to one-up itself, and it uses its first major action scene of the second season to make a potent statement that it won’t settle for any sort of rut.
High-speed car chases are already something television generally avoids due to the headaches of blocking off roads, the dangerous stunts involved, and the high price tags that both of those elements entail, but then Banshee tosses driving backward while shooting, a motorcyclist, and other harrowing factors into the mix. Now’s probably as good a time as any to note that the show's cast members do as much of their own stunt work as they can.
3) Banshee's fights aim for a level of visual grandeur that we usually associate with film
As seen in: The gunfight in a church in the season two finale, "Bullets and Tears" (season two, episode 10)
Season two climaxes with a hefty dose of heroic bloodshed. The scene represents an already heightened series at its most heightened, as the physical finesse of the two "heroes" (heroes relative to the murderous gangsters they’re fighting, at least) is almost supernatural (which is fitting, considering the church setting).
The frantic kineticism of the gunplay is punctuated by moments of grace, like when someone dives to the floor and strikes a pose as he slides across it. Pews are blasted into a storm of splinters by gunfire, and the chaos mounts to demonstrate how ultimately overwhelmed the two leads are by the enemy. The scene is so elemental that it could stand on its own, apart from any understanding of the show itself.
4) The show consistently one-ups itself with creative fight choreography, blocking, and camerawork
As seen in: Clay Burton (an ex-Amish gangster’s right-hand man) versus Nola Longshadow (who’s out for revenge against said gangster) in "A Fixer of Sorts" (season three, episode three)
This is quite possibly Banshee's best fight to date, combining everything discussed above. It is astonishingly, biblically brutal. (You can see the full scene on YouTube.)
But the blocking and camerawork are the true superstars here. Much of the scene feels like it was shot in one take, even though it doesn’t quite claim as much; rather, it skillfully uses actions to mask its cuts without changing the shots’ point of view too much.
The camera bobs and weaves around and through the car, just like the characters do, introducing surprisingly complex geography to a battlefield that’s perhaps 10 square feet. It’s blissfully relentless, crescendoing in a stunning act of creative viciousness. Before watching this scene (or glimpsing the GIF above), had you ever seen anyone strangled from the inside of their throat? Now you have.
5) Banshee is always looking for some new visual conceit to explore
As seen in: The heist seen entirely through various in-universe cameras, in "You Can’t Hide From the Dead" (season three, episode seven)
Once again seeking to shake things up, Banshee decides to crib from not only heist films but found footage films as well.
Applying the immediacy of found footage to a robbery significantly ramps up the suspense. Each fighter must play their part in concert with everyone else or the whole thing will fall apart, and the split-screen, real-time presentation lets the scene juggle all of them at once.
The sequence also lets "You Can't Hide From the Dead" indulge in multiple fights experienced mainly in first-person point of view, beating recent first-person shooter film Hardcore Henry to the punch by more than a year. This scene neatly encapsulates Banshee itself, as many volatile ingredients come together and react to create beautifully messy explosions (literally).