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Should you watch ‘Strike Back?’

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The following program is intended for mature 1 audiences. It contains violence, language, sexual situations, and nudity.

Few programs can be effectively summed up by a 10-second content warning. For instance, when I hear the same warning prior to an episode of “Game of Thrones,” I don’t forget that I’m about to experience a brilliant, twisting narrative that requires a great amount of patience and features a number of morally gray characters. The depth and breadth of a show like “Game of Thrones” extend far beyond  a few words in a content advisory. The same cannot be said for “Strike Back,” and that is exactly what makes it so enjoyable.

For the most part, “Strike Back” doesn’t concern itself with the morality of its characters, nor would I consider the story brilliant.  Instead it relies on a continuous stream of well-executed action sequences and the outstanding rapport of its two leads, Philip Winchester (an American playing a Brit) and Sullivan Stapleton (an Aussie playing an American). They play Michael Stonebridge and Damion Scott, respectively, and they’re totally believable as two action junkies who traverse the world kicking ass, one third world terrorist at a time. Technically, Pakistan and South Africa are not third world nations, but since they’re not American or Western European either, they might as well be for the purposes of the show’s audience.

“Strike Back” is Cinemax’s highest rated show, which doesn’t say much because it’s Cinemax, and 73 percent of viewers only subscribe for the softcore porn. 2 But is it too much to ask nowadays for an old-fashioned American  ass-whooping? Yeehaw, motherfuckers. Sometimes, all I want is to watch two special ops commandos take on a private army of mercenaries and escape with nary a scratch. Of course to satisfy Cinemax’s hardline pervert base, they guarantee at least one pair of breasts per episode. Even when the two soldiers are stranded and alone in the middle of nowhere, Cinemax finds a way.

But it’s not all guns and girls. I’d like to think I have higher standards than that (I don’t), and where the show really wins points in my book is in the writing, and the dialogue in particular. There is a tightness to it, enough so to make you care about these two lost commandos and sympathize with them even when they’re not being shot at. No, it won’t reveal a dark underbelly of American politics or explore the inherent criminal nature of each of us. Its purpose is still primarily to blow shit up. But unlike plenty of other action shows and films, the writing doesn’t detract from the rest of the package; it accents our views with quick, witty dialogue and characters that are more than mere stock archetypes. Probably the best thing I can say about the writing in a program like this is that you won’t often notice it, aside from the handful of chuckles it elicits every episode. It’s also unpredictable, and aside from Scott and Stonebridge, everyone is expendable.

In this Golden Age of television, more and more showrunners aspire to create the next “Sopranos,” “The Wire,” or “Mad Men.” Most often, they fail. Just look at the collective Internet downvote of “Low Winter Sun” as it laid its chips on the table post-”Breaking Bad.” Modern elite shows are considered all-time greats, and for good reason. Vibrant, engaging TV is extraordinarily hard to create, and even harder to sustain. All you have to do is look at a show like “Lost,” which steadily lost viewers each season as it became mired in the mythology of the island and locked its characters in a perpetual state of inertia. 3 “Strike Back” cannot and should not be compared to any of the aforementioned critically acclaimed dramas. That’s not what it strives to be, and it’s far from a drama anyway. It’s a great action show in its own right, with charismatic characters, devious villains (Charles Dance AKA Tywin Lannister is the Season 2 nemesis), and smart writing.

There was a time when nobody in the world fucked with us because they were scared. They were scared of Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme. 4 Sure, not all of them are American, but that’s not the point. They were all Hollywood and they all kicked ass. Thirty years ago, they laid the foundation that “Strike Back” builds upon today. It’s stereotypical American fare, but in the best possible way. And for any action fans out there, it deserves your attention.

Notes:

  1. And by mature, we actually mean immature and male.
  2. Also, 88 percent of all statistics are entirely made up.
  3. “Lost” is still one of my three all time favorite shows, but more due to the dynamism of its characters than the story that was their vehicle. I have so much to say about this show, but I’ll leave it for another day.
  4. Pretty sure no one’s ever been scared of Steven Seagal though.