Early in the new season of Cinemax's action drama "Strike Back" (it returns tomorrow night at 10), soldier Damien Scott is asked how an American wound up as a key member of a British special forces unit.
"It's a long story," he says.
"But is it a good story?" he's asked.
"Nope," he replies. "Just long."
It's an in-joke for fans of the series' first Cinemax season(*), which explained exactly how the reckless Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) came to work for Section 20 alongside straight-laced English soldier Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester). But the exchange also nicely sums up the philosophy of "Strike Back." It's a show without pretensions. It knows exactly what it is — a straightforward blend of action and sex designed to appeal to people who already subscribed to Cinemax for one or both of those things — and doesn't apologize for that, but simply aspires to be the best version of itself that it can be. It is, as I realized midway through last season, much better than it has any need to be.
(*) "Strike Back" technically debuted on the UK's Sky1 in 2010. Cinemax partnered up with Sky for the following season, which introduced a whole new cast of characters but occasionally referenced people and events from the UK-only season. So for American viewers, we're entering the show's second season; for Brits, this will be the third.
It is, first and foremost, an action show about two men who are among the very best in the world at what they do — at one point, a terrorist complains that Scott and Stonebridge have each received roughly $6 million worth of training, while his own men's training cost only whatever it cost to buy their bullets — and "Strike Back" repeatedly illustrates their skills in exciting ways. The various gun, knife and fistfights — and, in one case, an ax fight — may not match up to what you see in "The Expendables 2," but they're among the best I've ever seen on the small screen, and Stapleton and Winchester carry themselves incredibly well throughout these sequences.
The series also makes terrific use of its international locations, this season using its South African production based to double for a number of other countries. In one episode, Stonebridge has a bare-chested wrestling match with a Tuareg nomad in a ring of fire in the middle of the desert, and it's the best-looking shot you'll see on television this summer that's not on "Breaking Bad."
Speaking of exposed flesh, there's an unwritten rule that Stapleton and one of the female guest stars must get naked once per episode — this is, after all, the channel with the long-standing nickname "Skinemax." But the sex scenes never feel as shoehorned in as they do on, say, a number of Starz's original dramas. There's a tradition of action heroes having sex in between all the killing, after all, and on occasion the suggestion that Scott does it to cope with a lifestyle where he could be brutally killed at any moment rings true, and not just as a transparent excuse for more nudity.
It's in dealing with the emotional toll of the job where "Strike Back" really earns its money, in fact. If it were just a collection of well-choreographed explosions and gunfire, it would still be an entertaining watch. But there's a genuine effort made to show the impact of all this mayhem on both the men perpetuating it and the people who are witnesses and/or victims to it. The shootouts look cool, but Scott, Stonebridge and the people they encounter across the globe — including their new colleague, Rachel Dalton, played well by Rhona Mitra — don't just shrug off the violence. Wherever Section 20 visits (the season's early episodes are set in Somalia and Algeria), there's at least lip service paid to the geopolitics of the area, and the characters who get caught up in the action are sketched out enough so that you feel something when they either die or improbably survive.
The season sets up something of an emotional role reversal for Scott and Stonebridge, and also gets some self-aware comic mileage out of everything they've been through. Sooner or later in almost every story, one of them is taken prisoner and has to be freed by the other; when Stonebridge is the rescuer in one early episode, he and Scott get into an argument over who's saved the other more.
The series uses an interlocking story structure, with a collection of two-part episodes that function on their own as well-crafted low-budget action movies (Cinemax is airing the first two episodes together on Friday to make this clear, with one per week after that), but which combine to tell a larger story. Here, the pieces include Dalton's takeover of Section 20, an amoral South African businessman played by Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister from "Game of Thrones"), the reason Scott left America, and Stonebridge's attempt to deal with a major personal setback.
I've only seen the first four hours, but if last season is any guide, the picture should cohere nicely by the end — and inevitably involve a fireball in the distance while Scott and Stonebridge take aim at a few dozen attackers.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com
Also, here's an exclusive clip from the premiere, in which Scott gets to observe Rachel Dalton in action: