"Helix" (10 p.m. EST Friday, Syfy): This science-y thriller is essentially a locked-room mystery, but the locked room is a secretive medical research facility deep in the Arctic. As you can see from the first 15 minutes of the pilot, something goes very wrong up there, and a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, led by Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell), heads to the base to check things out. "Helix" does what any self-respecting techno-thriller needs to do: It makes you fear not just what's medically and scientifically possible, but also what corporations could conceivably do with all their technological and biological know-how. The first three episodes of "Helix," two of which air Friday, are directed with creepy precision and crisp pace -- even if I was a bit confused at times as to how much of what transpired was a result of poor decisions on the part of the CDC or due to factors they could not control (in other words, I wanted to root for the CDC team, but I wasn't always certain they were making wise decisions).
There's no doubt that the base's research director, Dr. Hiroshi Hataki (Hiroyuki Sanada), is a tricky customer and sees no need to tell Farragut's team everything that he knows. And the tension builds nicely as people start questioning the motivations of the Arctic Biosystems management, wondering who'll be infected next and speculating about how far the contagion could spread. Though the cast is generally solid, I wished I cared about the characters more (that is what happens when Ron Moore of "Battlestar Galactica" is connected to a project -- he's an executive producer), but I'll keep watching. "Helix" developed a solid momentum as it went along, and putting frightened people in confined quarters with an enemy that can only be seen on a microscope is a recipe for many different kinds of chaos. "Helix" doesn't reinvent the virus thriller, but it's a solid slice of genre entertainment that offers some creepy visuals and believable scares.
For more on "Helix," check out this primer on the show, and HuffPost TV's Chris Jancelewicz's interview with star Billy Campbell. I also talked to Ron Moore about "Helix" and other things in this podcast.
"Banshee" (10 p.m. EST Friday, Cinemax): My affection for this show grows as it pummels its way into a taut, enjoyable second season. I wrote recently about the new wave of popcorn-y genre fare that is quietly subversive, and "Banshee" fits comfortably into that "B-Movie TV" category. On the surface, yep, it's a Cinemax show in which people occasionally get naked and characters beat the crap out of each other on a regular basis. There's nothing wrong with any of that, but "Banshee" also exudes a well-crafted, film-noir sensibility: The characters may often speak with their fists, but they're believably driven by love, regret, vengeance and other bittersweet emotions. The performances are solid and dependably credible (Zeljko Ivanek is particularly fantastic in the season premiere), and there are a bunch of interesting elements that help "Banshee" rise above any preconceptions about it being just another boobs-and-bullets extravaganza.
For one thing, this drama about an ex-con masquerading as a small-town sheriff matter-of-factly features a tough-as-nails trans hacker who owns every scene she is in (all praise to Hoon Lee, who portrays Job), as well as a feud between an Amish gangster and the canny Native American businessmen who run the local casino. No character on "Banshee" is an exemplary token; all the characters have their own agendas and are corrupt or broken or both.
One of the best things about the show is its depiction of how much the taciturn Lucas Hood -- the sheriff played by Antony Starr -- aches after, or even during, various fights and showdowns, and I also appreciate the fact that female characters are allowed to kick as much ass and be just as driven by demons as the dudes. Perhaps most crucially, "Banshee" understands its limits and never takes itself too seriously; there's often a dry wit percolating through the show, as is the case with Cinemax's "Strike Back." All that being said, my favorite part of "Banshee's" return was something that happened in the second-season premiere: There's a bare-bones but smartly choreographed chase scene that is so pulse-poundingly enjoyable that I forgot to breathe for a minute or two.
Cheerfully cheap, reasonably smart and action-packed shows that allow you to turn your brain off on a Friday night aren't all that plentiful. If you want small-town noir-action done right, or an epidemic-driven thriller that will make you want to encase your body in antibacterial plastic, "Banshee" and "Helix" may be the shows for you.
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