By Ken Tucker
Updated January 11, 2013 at 12:00 PM EST
Banshee Antony Starr
Credit: Fred Norris/Cinemax

In Banshee, a muscled bullet-head played by Antony Starr was released from prison, grabbed a quick bit of sexual intercourse from a welcoming waitress, stole a car, and quickly assumed the identity of a dead man who was about to become the new sheriff of Banshee, Pennsylvania. If you bought this premise, and looked past the fervid exaggeration of the opening moments that are meant to keep Cinemax viewers from switching the channel, you were probably drawn into the clever, well-filmed, intriguing saga set up by series creators Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler.

As sheriff Lucas Hood, New Zealand actor Starr became immediately believable as an amoral thug who’s looking to retrieve some diamonds he helped pilfer pre-prison, and find his former lover and crime partner, the puckishly named Carrie Hopewell (Ivana Milicevic, on the lam from ABC’s woeful Charlie’s Angels remake). The new Hood in town baffles the small-town sheriff’s department, stocked with meaner-Andy Griffith Show-types (most prominently the excellent character actor Matt Servitto), with his curt manner and disregard for civil liberties. (The new sheriff is more likely to beat up law-breakers than haul them into the pokey for an Otis the Drunk-like, sleep-it-off nap.)

But Hood can be surprised as well, and we shared that feeling when he encountered one of the powers behind the town of Banshee in the form of Ulrich Thomsen’s Kai Proctor, a ruthless Amish crime boss. Just the fact that Tropper and Schickler managed to make an Amish crime boss believable is a measure of Banshee‘s assurance and pleasure.

The best aspect of Banshee is the way it avoids the current trends in dark/edgy/gritty/noir programming. (If I never saw those four adjectives applied to a new TV show for a few years, I’d be even happier than my usual chipper self). Instead, whether intended or not, Banshee can be seen in the tradition of interesting pulp chroniclers of bleakness, danger, and the downtrodden — the novels of writers such as Jim Thompson and Horace McCoy. (Shift the show over a few towns geographically, and Banshee would also feel much like the life-is-hell novels of Philadelphia’s David Goodis.)

There were numerous good fights with quick bursts of bone-breaking elbow and knee strikes, and Hood and Carrie have to sneak smooches in between her showing houses as a real estate agent.

Over the past year, Cinemax has tried to up its profile with original programming, the best of which to date had been Frank Spotnitz’s Hunted. I’ve only seen two episodes of Banshee, but I’m willing to think it’s going to prove just as good as Hunted. It’s already established itself as an eccentric, propulsive show unlike other crime shows on TV right now.

Twitter: @kentucker