Strike Back

How Strike Back’s cast turned revival into one of TV’s best series

Five years ago, a Strike Back revival was unfathomable. But thanks to hard work and the game efforts of a perfect cast, the Cinemax series came roaring back – and it will sign off tomorrow as the most incredible show on television.

In many ways, the program’s journey has mirrored that of Section 20. Warren Brown, Alin Sumarwata, and Daniel MacPherson were brought in to resurrect a series that was done, as their characters Thomas “Mac” McAllister, Gracie Novin and Samuel Wyatt were made to pick up the mantle of the elite British military unit after it was officially disbanded and its reputation unofficially burned to the ground in the final episodes of season 5. Who could forget that scene of Michael Stonebridge telling off Ridley for, among other things, trying to have everyone killed?

What’s unfolded since has been an uphill battle, both on- and off-screen. Over three seasons, Section 20 has gone through two commanding officers, lost several members in the line of duty – as is always the way with Strike Back – and been in various states of disrepair. The characters have always felt like they’re trying to prove themselves, whether it’s to their superiors at Whitehall, to one another, or even to themselves.

That’s not too far removed from the show’s need to prove itself to fans all over again. It was eyebrow-arching, to say the least, when Cinemax pulled the plug on the series only to announce its return a year and a half later with a new cast. The timing prompted the question of “Why cancel it in the first place?” and an unavoidable comparison between actors.

Every series revival comes with that question, but for Strike Back the degree of difficulty was so much higher, because this wasn’t bringing back a show that had been resting for a few years. This was ramping back up when the performances of Philip Winchester, Sullivan Stapleton, Michelle Lukes and Robson Green were still fresh in everyone’s memories. And this was a show that demanded both acting excellence and total physical and mental commitment from its leads. How in blazes was anyone supposed to follow them?

Strike Back
From left: Alin Sumarwata and Daniel MacPherson in Strike Back. Photo Credit: Sophie Mutevelian/Courtesy of Cinemax.

Lightning struck twice with the casting of Brown, MacPherson, Sumarwata and later on, Jamie Bamber. These weren’t random actors just thrown into TV’s toughest show; they brought their own established reputations to the series. If you haven’t seen what Warren Brown did in Luther, or Alin Sumarwata’s season of East West 101, or the seasons Daniel MacPherson spent on City Homicide, you’ve missed out. These stars were good before they got here; Strike Back has simply made them great.

It takes a lot of people to make a TV show successful, but this one is particularly down to the cast. It took some time for the writing to catch up to what the actors were able to do; their first few episodes felt like they were stuck in the prior version’s shadow, from the whole “straight-laced British soldier vs. wise-ass American partner” dynamic to the first boss being complicit in the evil plan (sorry, Colonel Donovan). The actors sunk their teeth into these characters, and when the scripts started to find their voices and their strengths, we saw a new Strike Back that justified its existence – because it was telling a unique story and not just using the name to prop itself up.

What viewers have followed now is a Section 20 that, for lack of a better phrase, puts the “fun” in dysfunctional. Stonebridge, Scott and their group weren’t perfect, but they usually had their stuff together, and when they didn’t, they were able to put it back together. That hasn’t been the case with Mac, Wyatt and their comrades. This season we saw Mac deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; we’ve seen Wyatt unable to return to civilian life and Novin battle survivor’s guilt (twice!). Section 20 is the thing that holds them together. All of these characters are much more deeply flawed, which sets an entirely different tone for the series, and sends a different message.

This incarnation of Section 20, thrown together out of necessity, has scrapped and fought for everything they have ever accomplished and for all the wolves at their door, none have ever been greater than the demons they’re already dealing with. It’s a different kind of storytelling, to take them from a disparate handful of broken individuals and get them to a place where, in this current season, they’ve picked up the pieces and might not need this anymore. The golden rule of any revival is there better be something new to say, and Strike Back found that in spades.

What we’re left with, then, is a Strike Back revival that some would say shouldn’t have existed in the first place, that has grown to give us some incredible characters and some of the show’s most memorable moments. Warren Brown’s final episode was the most un-Strike Back thing ever, but it was also the best performance of his entire career and the best script Jack Lothian has ever written. It wasn’t something you could have done with the prior cast, because the characters wouldn’t have been right for it; these ones were. If you’re doing a show about characters that are broken, it’s a perfect fit when you break the mold.

This Strike Back has been an equal blessing, but in a totally different way. Every character came to this unit missing something, and every actor who climbed aboard demonstrated something we’d never seen from them before. The show made them better, and Section 20 made their characters better. And they, as a team both in front of the camera as well as behind it, told a compelling story about silencing your critics and always staying true to yourself.

It wasn’t the formula that worked; you can’t just call something “Section 20” and cast some actors and have a hit show. (See 24: Legacy or Law & Order: Los Angeles.) It was this group of people that made Strike Back a success, because they came to play. They brought their own talents, and they were supremely committed, and they not only preserved but perpetuated everything that’s great about this show. It’s not the blowing stuff up, or the fight sequences, though those are awesome, too.

It’s the sense of camaraderie, where we can feel that Section 20 isn’t just a unit, but a unified family. That number means something to them and so it means something to the fans. If you’re a part of Section 20 it’s because you’ve earned it, and we’ve watched these characters earn it the hardest way possible. The actors understood what that name meant, too, and we’ve seen them earn their place with their own challenges, from years of hard work to just dealing with that skepticism.

And just as the unit is more than a fighting force, Warren, Dan, Alin, Jamie, Varada Sethu and everyone who’s been part of this incarnation of Strike Back recaptured that feeling of family, whether it was the bond they forged with one another or the way that they’ve constantly engaged the fans just like their predecessors did. They are incredible people, who leave not just as actors but as friends. They’ve done well by the Section 20 mantle and they’ve added their own chapter to Strike Back‘s legacy. This show is better now for having them in it, and everyone who wants to do a TV revival or reboot should be taking notes from their playbook.

So as we wait for the series finale, again, let’s take a moment to appreciate how this new group of actors took on the most massive of challenges – coming aboard the most intense and demanding show on TV and having to start it all over again – and not only beat it, they steamrolled over it and made it their own.

Strike Back airs Fridays at 10:00 p.m. on Cinemax.

Article content is (c)2020 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr.

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