Cinemax's Strike Back and Rom Mai Thai Turn Up The Heat

This week's TV Dinner will focus on the last few days of sweltering, passionate heat we can squeeze out of Seattle, before it lazily slumps back into the clammy, gray mess we know and love. To best represent the sweaty fervor of August, we have Capitol Hill's Rom Mai Thai, a sure friend to lovers of sadistically spicy food, to be eaten while watching Cinemax's Strike Back, a hi-octane thriller focussing on a confidential cell of counter-terrorist agents who simultaneously swear to absolute secrecy while shooting and blowing up every high profile target that comes within their line of sight.

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Sarah Anne Lloyd, 2011.

This week's TV Dinner will focus on the last few days of sweltering, passionate heat we can squeeze out of Seattle, before it lazily slumps back into the clammy, gray mess we know and love. To best represent the sweaty fervor of August, we have Capitol Hill's Rom Mai Thai, a sure friend to lovers of sadistically spicy food, to be eaten while watching Cinemax's Strike Back, a hi-octane thriller focussing on a confidential cell of counter-terrorist agents who simultaneously swear to absolute secrecy while shooting and blowing up every high profile target that comes within their line of sight.

The Cuisine: Rom Mai Thai serves (and delivers to) Capitol Hill diners well with not only a delicious competency towards Thai staples and a liberal attitude towards pleasing more Western tastes, but also the ability to augment your spicy dish well beyond the menu's four stars. Lore has it that Rom Mai will go up to twenty-five stars if you ask, but just know that fact doesn't unbalance the standard scale; my two star entree still packed plenty of eyewatering punch.

A delightfully jarring blend of spices and a forgiving blanket of coconut milk galvanizes Rom Mai's panang curry. You ought to be shoving wads of jasmine rice into so you can experience every last drop, even after you're done with Mai's notably generous allotment of succulent meat chunks (or tofu, if you're into that). Their fresh rolls prepared with care, a perfectly laid basil leaf helping every bite of carrot and crystal noodle, and anchored with pillowy tofu (or shrimp, if you're into that).

As for the pandering to Western tastes I mentioned earlier, Rom Mai's angel wings are a horrifically awe-inspiring hybrid of egg roll and chicken wing, deep fried into a ridiculously excessive clump of tender chicken and vegetables. I would've been perfectly happy with two, but the order came with four -- and it that exact same kind of crowd-pleasing, over-the-top fusion is the same place where Strike Back succeeds.

The Entertainment: Apparently getting tired of the fact it's probably the last premium movie channel that isn't producing an edgy television show, Cinemax took a long look at its jam-packed line-up of softcore pornography and straight-to-DVD horror movies and decided it was best to cram the "all new original series" Strike Back somewhere in there. Granted, Strike Back isn't actually all new (the show is currently on its second season), nor is it particularly original (UK network Sky1 was the first to broadcast it and actually commissioned this second series with Cinemax acting as co-producers), but considering that the show kills off or quietly replaces most of the first season's cast and plot elements, you might as well just pretend it all starts here.

Similar to Showtime's Dexter, Strike Back is based on a book series but is probably much more faithful to its corresponding television genre's stereotypes. True to the roots of shows like 24 or The Unit, Strike Back can't wait to get into ticking clocks, brutal interrogations and minimum of three befuddling plot twists per episode, but unlike its network-tied progenitors, Strike Back is free to indulge in all of the exploding skulls and nudity that a good mindless pseudo-political thriller deserves. In fact, after awhile it kind of seems like the endless fountains of blood and dialogue delivered mid-sexual act are contractually obligated.

Creatively libertine flourishes embellish Strike Back through and through, like a seemingly endless supply of expendable henchmen in adorable matching track suits who seem determined to get in front of the protagonists' weapons at all costs. While the Michael Bay comparisons are pretty inevitable, it's at least the gritty, remotely human Michael Bay of Con Air and The Rock, not the boobs-and-farts robot that made the Transformers movies.

Shooting mostly in South Africa, the show's pretty evenly balanced make-up of a British and American cast and crew helps it from being confused right off the bat with a nationalistic pro-war power fantasy, upgrading Strike Back to the prestige of a mostly apolitical... power fantasy. Much more discomforting is the all-too standard "boy's club" element of these hi-octane action thrillers. Formidable lady compatriots of the two male heroes' Super Secret Spy Club do exist, but are very quickly shoved into the periphery to make way for the boys' nigh-useless sex objects who scream and cry until they're inevitably gunned down by the bad guys for dramatic effect.

The series clumsily tries to take the James Bond route to gender equity by having a woman in charge of all the spies' pencil-pushing and briefing/debriefing (read: plot exposition), but besides a few stern disapprovals and shouting matches over procedure, Strike Back's females are mostly only allowed to talk if it's leading up to sex being had on top of them. Still, the action and passably intriguing plot are there, even if it isn't the world's most progressive Kill The Terrorists television series. If you're hungry for a 24 alternative with plenty of panache, you can certainly do a lot worse.

The Pairing: While Rom Mai Thai is obviously much less nebulous when it comes to an obvious national affiliation, both properties stand out from the dozens of other near-indistinguishable competitors with a comfort in spectacle and a lavish attention to excess. While that distinguishing detail might not be for everyone, it at least makes Strike Back and Rom Mai worth a taste to cap off the dwindling heat of summer.

 
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