Ahh, Cinemax. Home to all of the same movies on HBO but also home to everyone's favorite late-night soft-core porn. So how does this channel look to distinguish itself from HBO other than the soft-core porn? Two words: Original Programming. But since it's Cinemax, it has to have a program that not too dissimilar in flavor to what Cinemax is so well-known for. So they imported a show from the UK originally called CHRIS RYAN'S STRIKE BACK, shortened the title, and according to information about that show, Cinemax splashed it with a super-sized helping of pretty graphic violence and lots of (mostly) unnecessary sex and lo and behold Cinemax gave us STRIKE BACK.
The show is, in essence, a volatile chemical mixture of the conspiracies and action of 24, the stand-alone episodic suspense and serious character work of SPOOKS (known here in the US on PBS as MI-5), the kind of tech and teamwork of THE UNIT, the kind of graphic violence Premium Cable allows for, and some of the gratuitous sex and nudity of Cinemax's late-night fare. The structure of the show is a buddy-action film with two mis-matched partners going after the bad guys and kicking (and showing) some serious buttocks, but intermingled with some more serious and shocking moments you wouldn't expect.
On the partner side you have the stiff British soldier Alex Stonebridge (the impossibly well-chiseled Philip Winchester) who is all about the orders and the mission, and then there's the sloppy and rugged American, the disgraced former Delta named Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton, suitably tough) who is all about the ladies and the action. Stonebrigde works for a secret unit of British Military Intelligence called Section 20, run by Colonel Eleanor Grant (a terrific Amanda Mealing). An operative of theirs is killed in the hunt to find a Middle-Eastern terror mastermind called Latif, and in order to find Latif, Scott is reluctantly brought on-board in Section 20. Over the ten episodes of this season, there are some real highlights, some real low-lights, but mostly a pretty solid piece of entertainment.
Among the real highlights of the season are an extremely tense two-parter where Stonebridge and Scott along with Capt. Kate Marshall (the lovely Eva Birthistle), another Section 20 agent and Stonebridge's secret lover, square off against a former IRA bomber (the always great Liam Cunningham); another extremely tense two-parter with Stonebridge and Scott as they partner up with an arms dealer (GAME OF THRONES's Iain Glen) to free his daughter from an African rebel army's leader (LOST's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje); a truly magnificent set-piece involving a minefield, and a massive firefight with Stonebridge and Scott vs dozens of Chechen rebels all look to raise your pulse or stall your breathing. The final sacrifice. These are all moments that push this show into pretty awesome territory.
Among the low-lights of the show, one is that there is very little character development beyond what's on the surface. Stonebridge and Scott get by on their looks, action-hero personas and charm. The other semi-major characters of Section 20, like Maj. Sinclair (Rhashan Stone) and Sgt. Richmond (Michelle Lukes) have no development. They're not quite red-shirt "Star Trek" characters (but to be fair, there are more than a few of those), but they have no real life to them, and that's not the fault of the performers. The only character that seems to really have a developmental arc is Col. Grant, and she has some questionable motives. Scott's sexual liasons are as unrealistic as the other Cinemax late-night fare (the woman in the bar he talks to for 2 minutes; the only beautiful hostage; etc.). The absolute worst thing the show does is a pretty significant death for Stonebridge happens, and once it's done with, it's done with. You never really see that revisit his character, and you never see anyone else grieve or really even acknowledge the death. The direction never seems terribly inspired either. It's pretty much a point-and-shoot show.
So yes, there is a first season that was shown in the UK that actually concentrates on the character who is the lynchpin of Scott coming to Section 20, but there is no way of really seeing that in the US because of the apparent region coding issues on those discs. The real showrunner of STRIKE BACK is Andy Harries, who's been doing TV and film in the UK for a few decades, with shows like WALLANDER and films like THE QUEEN. But when the show got stateside, the biggest name involved was Frank Spotnitz, whose work previously included the awful remake of KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER for TV a few years back and sci-fi thrillers like HARSH REALM and MILLENIUM. But Spotnitz was also a producer for THE X-FILES (and the first episode of this show has a HUGE shout-out to that show) so having someone on staff who was a big part of one of the greatest television series ever is a big plus in this show's favor.
STRIKE BACK is a throwback to charming 80's buddy-action cinema but with the sensibilites of more modern storytelling techniques, and a healthy amount of flesh give this show a very unusual flavor, but it's tasty enough to make you want seconds.