ShawConnect TV critic Brent Furdyk samples the upcoming pilots for a first look at the new midseason series

Starring: Antony Starr, Ivana Milicevic, Frankie Faison, Hoon Lee, Ulrich Thomsen, Ben Cross, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Matt Servitto, Russ Blackwell

The gist: After serving 15 years in prison, a professional thief (New Zealand actor Starr) tracks down his former lover/partner in crime (Casino Royale’s Milicevic) in the small town of Banshee, Pennsylvania, deep in the heart of Amish country. He’s disheartened to find her married to the local D.A., mother of a teenage daughter and living under the assumed identity of Carrie Hopewell.

Drowning his sorrows at a local bar owned by ex-con former prizefighter Sugar Bates (Frankie Faison), the situation turns harrowing when a pair of local hoodlums storm in demanding cash. Unbeknownst to them, the only other person in the bar — who’s been sitting quietly eating his plate of steak and eggs — is Banshee’s new sheriff, on his way to town to begin his first day on the job. Before you can say “stand-off,” guns are drawn and, after a few tense moments, fired. The sole survivors: Sugar and the thief.

When they find out the lawman was hired sight-unseen by the town’s teenage mayor, the thief decides to assume the dead man’s identity to become new sheriff Lucas Hood. As we soon discover, there’s a very good reason why the man now known as Lucas Hood should live under a false identity — he and Carrie ripped off $10 million worth of diamonds from their former boss, a ruthless Ukrainian gangster known as Mr. Rabbit (Star Trek’s Cross). Rabbit will stop at nothing to get even with them, and it’s only a matter of time before he tracks them down.

Meanwhile, Hood’s first day on the job includes a shootout, a beatdown and an uncomfortable encounter with local businessman Kai Procter (Ulrich Thomsen), who runs the town like Tony Soprano ran New Jersey. Although Procter — who turned his back on his Amish roots — had the previous sheriff firmly ensconced in his pocket, Hood is not easily bought off, and it isn’t long before he lands on Procter’s bad side. Thrown into the mix is Hood’s longtime friend/associate, Job (Hoon Lee), a transvestite hairdresser by day and ace computer hacker by night, for whom it’s child’s play to create fake IDs and hack into government databases to provide complete identity theft.

It’s like…The Shield meets Sheriff Lobo

Sample line: “You’re the most notorious thief in the country and you’re going to the one place you absolutely should not go.”

IMHO: Banshee bristles with energy, intelligence and Justified-style humour, boasting enough car chases, gunfights and fisticuffs to satisfy any action fan. Airing on the U.S. Cinemax channel (here in Canada on Movie Central/The Movie Network), the show is a perfect fit with the channel’s attempts to become a TV destination for guys, alongside such testosterone-heavy fare as Strike Back and The Transporter.

Fun fact: The series was created by TV rookies Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler, who enlisted True Blood creator Alan Ball to help them put the show together.

Verdict: Like those other series on Cinemax (which has earned the nickname “Skin-emax” thanks to umpteen soft-porn erotic thrillers starring Shannon Tweed), there is no shortage of porny sex scenes; it’s practically like there’s a per-episode quota, and gratuitous sex scenes pop up so frequently and so randomly that it’s almost distracting. Despite this, Banshee transcends its B-movie roots by embracing them, adding sharp dialogue and an engaging plot that chugs along with the relentless pace of a freight train, and earns additional points for never taking itself too seriously.

Prediction: If Banshee continues to deliver on the promise of its early episodes, action-hungry TV viewers will definitely want to hop aboard.

BANSHEE premieres Friday, January 11 on The Movie Network/Movie Central