It Still Stings: The Death of Cinemax, One of Peak TV's Greatest Experiments

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It Still Stings: The Death of Cinemax, One of Peak TV's Greatest Experiments

Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:

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Despite the overwhelming number of shows that continue to beg for viewers’ attention every week, I can’t help but want more. To be more precise, I want more of a specific type of show: one that delivers heart-stopping action and viscerally engaging storytelling, all within the confines of the weekly episodic format. For the better part of the 2010s, shows like that did exist, and one network in particular excelled at producing (or co-producing) them: Cinemax. It’s a shame, then, that the premium cable network—which is owned by WarnerMedia and has been operating under the same roof as HBO since 1980—was essentially dismantled to make room for HBO Max. And it’s especially unfortunate because some of Cinemax’s shows still aren’t available to stream on the platform.

What began as a pay cable network focusing solely on movies that could complement HBO’s programming, Cinemax eventually evolved to include, most notably (infamously?) adult-oriented fare as part of its Max After Dark programming block. This led to a pervy reputation and a mocking but apt nickname: Skinemax. However, in 2011, intending to change and improve its reputation, the premium network took the first steps toward revamping itself once more by moving into the original content sphere.

With the debuts of the military-themed drama Strike Back—a co-production with the U.K.’s Sky One beginning with Season 2—and the British import Hunted, Cinemax began the slow rise out of pervatory to take its first steps toward becoming a legitimate network. While the latter would not live beyond one season, Strike Back—which appealed to the network’s key male demographic—quickly proved to be the backbone of its lineup. The show was then softly rebooted after the first season to be less somber and more fun. It starred Sullivan Stapleton and Philip Winchester as elite soldiers working to stop terrorists and other nefarious criminals around the globe. Airing from 2011 until 2015 and featuring high-octane, movie-worthy action sequences, Strike Back was often better than it had any right to be, especially given how much of the early Cinemax-produced seasons still adhered to the Skinemax M.O. of gratuitous sex and nudity. It was eventually revived and rebooted in 2017, trading the bromance that defined the Stapleton and Winchester era for an ensemble cast led by Daniel MacPherson, Warren Brown, and Alin Sumarwata. As the show aged, it grew stronger and more confident in its ability to pull off thrilling action and fight scenes while also developing its leads and telling more meaningful stories about them and the human cost of the job. When you look at the television landscape today, few shows fit that bill.

But Strike Back is hardly the only show for which Cinemax is known. Although the drama enjoyed a relatively long run on the network and was a reliable performer, it’s not likely to be the first series to be mentioned in conversations about Cinemax. No, that would be the four-season crime drama Banshee from co-creators Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler. A homegrown production premiering in 2013, Banshee followed an ex-con (Antony Starr) who, upon release from prison after 15 years, tracked his ex (Ivana Milicevic) to the small town of Banshee, Pennsylvania, where he took over the identity of the sheriff. For four years, the pulpy and violent action drama with big dreams (and a surprisingly big heart) explored the thrilling drama of small-town power dynamics and organized crime while dabbing in emotional stories about second chances, found family, and fatherhood. And it was all set against the backdrop of not just Banshee but also the local Amish and Native American communities. It was a compelling, multi-layered drama that at times drew more viewers than some HBO programs, and yet flew under the radar because the company wouldn’t dare promote Cinemax’s success over HBO.

Another high point was the early 1900s-set medical drama The Knick. The show, created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and directed by Steven Soderbergh, starred Clive Owen as a cocaine and opium-addicted surgeon at a New York hospital. With a Peabody Award and six Emmy nominations to its name, the series is the most acclaimed program Cinemax ever had. But it struggled to find an audience and was canceled after two seasons once HBO—which had taken charge of the show—became unwilling to foot the bill. Similarly short-lived was Quarry, a violent neo-noir that would not have been out of place on HBO or the version of FX that existed during the heyday of Sons of Anarchy, Justified, and The Americans. Based on the novels of Max Allan Collins and set in 1970s Memphis, Quarry featured an excellent soundtrack and followed a disgraced Marine (Logan Marshall-Green) who, after returning home from Vietnam and finding himself an outcast in his own country, became a gun for hire.

With the arrival of Banshee in 2013, The Knick in 2014, and Quarry in 2016, Cinemax had slowly but steadily carved out a place for itself in the increasingly crowded TV landscape, and had made inroads toward becoming a destination for top-notch programming. More and more people were taking notice, and the memories of Skinemax had started to fade. The addition of the horror series Outcast, the martial arts-themed Warrior, and the sleek and sophisticated crime drama Jett only added to the network’s appeal. And yet the original content pipeline would be dead within a year of the latter two series premieres in 2019.

It’s clear the powers that be have only ever viewed Cinemax as the little brother of HBO, who’s always present but destined to never play with the big dogs (Tropper said as much to the Wall Street Journal in 2020). But the truth is, under the careful leadership of former president Kary Antholis, Cinemax flourished creatively and discovered a previously underserved audience, one who liked pulp and violence and wanted to watch a mini action movie every week. The originals produced during the 2010s embraced this to various degrees. They were unique in tone and style but all featured detailed worlds populated by creative criminals and memorable characters like Banshee’s Job (Hoon Lee), Jett’s Daisy “Jett” Kowalski (Carla Gugino), and Warrior’s Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng). There weren’t many places one could find that, even during Peak TV.

Just how little the network’s parent company cared about Cinemax (and its fans) started to become clear to the general public in 2017 when Quarry was canceled after one season, and the network pivoted back to action fare like Strike Back. This return to the network’s roots came as a result of corporate restructuring in the wake of AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner, which began in 2016. And it’s not to say it was an inherently bad decision—Strike Back would run for three more seasons and Warrior would run for two (more on that later)—but it was the first sign that a significant shift had happened. It was clear that one of the most interesting experiments of the Peak TV era was coming to an end, though the extent of Cinemax’s demise—which coincided with the development of the streaming service HBO Max—wouldn’t be clear for a while.

But Cinemax being dismantled was not the only reason a bitter taste lingered in fans’ mouths. It was clear to most that WarnerMedia didn’t care what happened to the library of shows that had changed the direction and legacy of the network. When HBO Max launched in May 2020, not one series was available on the platform (which was confusing given the “Max” of it all). When asked for an explanation, the company cited existing distribution deals. Meanwhile, the Max Go app for iPhone and Android was discontinued around the same time, likely to avoid confusion with HBO Max. This has made it increasingly hard for subscribers to watch anything from the network (Cinemax is still accessible via browser).

By the end of 2020, Cinemax’s original content pipeline had dried up and there were no plans beyond the second season of Warrior, which explores the Tong Wars of San Francisco via a martial arts prodigy (Andrew Koji). Luckily for fans of the show—which tackles anti-Chinese racism and is one of a few series to feature multiple actors of Asian descent in prominent roles—was made available on HBO Max early in 2021. It was even renewed for a third season, which will stream exclusively on the streaming service. But it would take a lot of questioning by the media (and likely a lot of negotiating behind the scenes) before Banshee, The Knick, and Jett would join the platform too. C.B. Strike, a co-production, also made the jump eventually. But Strike Back, Outcast, and Quarry—not to mention a handful of other co-productions, which kept costs low for Cinemax—still aren’t on HBO Max and are available only with a separate Cinemax subscription.

Whatever WarnerMedia’s plans are for Cinemax now—it’s been losing subscribers and operates solely as a movie-focused premium cable network once more—it’s clear that not only is money likely being left on the table, but some amazing shows are still slipping through the cracks. This isn’t the first time this has been pointed out, and I’m afraid it won’t be the last. But I can’t help revisiting the topic, because, despite the plethora of viewing options at our fingertips, few networks and/or streaming services are offering the types of programs Cinemax came to be known for during the 2010s.

It’s truly remarkable the shift that occurred at Cinemax between 2011 and 2020, an era defined by Too Much TV. And while niche networks and streaming services are now fairly common, Cinemax paved the way and proved it was possible to make not just good TV, but sometimes even great TV, even as the little brother. Maybe it’s because no one expected much from Cinemax, but it managed to excel with seemingly little outside support by offering creatively ambitious shows not seen elsewhere, and for that it deserves better than simply being forgotten.


Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.

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