Cops. Mobsters. Spies. Serial killers. Superheroes. Witches. Wizards. Television has tapped almost every genre archetype that exists to create easily marketable programming for our geeky-pulpy culture. One of the few exceptions: Pirates. And for good reason. Shooting on water? An expensive, logistical nightmare. (See: Waterworld, Titanic) Also? Pirates are fuuuuuu-gly, all scruffy and greasy and dentally challenged and eye-patchy. What good, image-conscious actor in their right, vain mind would sign up to look like that for years and years? Pirates certainly seem suited for an age smitten with Very Bad Men, for audiences that can find wish-fulfillment in gangsters, psychopaths, meth dealers, and Rakes of all sorts. But they come with only a limited supply of built-in story (they pillage, they chase pipe dreams, they turn on each other, they die; hardly six-seasons-and-movie material), and there’s little room for women, or at least good female characters. And then there’s the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which pretty much scratched any itch anyone might have had for epic pirate narrative, and also made the whole pirate thing look goofy. Which works for a piece of big-budget escapism every few years, but not for ongoing, modestly budgeted, character-driven TV drama.
Bottom line: Who could possibly take a pirate show seriously?
Well, the folks at Starz can. And I dare say that if you give Black Sails half a chance and a little bit of grace, you can, too. I might be in the minority here — I know other reviews have not been kind — but I was impressed by the conceptual framework of the series and by most of the characters, acting, and conflict. The story is set in the Caribbean circa the ”Golden Age of Piracy” (the early 18th century) and loosely inspired by history and Treasure Island. Among the characters filched from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel is our ”hero,” Captain Flint (Toby Stephens, playing it ferocious), the embattled leader of the pirate ship Walrus. He’s a crusty soul driven by two interlocking goals: to find and plunder a fabled and possibly mythical Spanish treasure ship Urca D’Lima; and to use the riches to develop and protect the lawless pirate enclave of New Providence Island from being tamed by ”civilization,” i.e. the British Empire and its resurgent Navy. Flint is an extreme libertarian; a would-be king; a man who yearns to leave the sea, settle down, find peace; an incurably restless, rabid animal; and, of course, a criminal. He’s a riveting mess, and one of the things I enjoyed most about the episodes previewed for this review is how the story reveals those competing sides of him over the course of the first few episodes.
The through-line of the premiere concerns Flint’s effort to shore up power on his ship, as many of his men are growing impatient with him due to a streak of meager scores. The crafty manner in which Flint succeeds in this matter captured my imagination for both his character, the mystery of the Urca D’Lima, and the key supporting players of the Walrus, including Flint’s loyal quartermaster Gates (Mark Ryan), and the idealistic (pirate idealism, that is) boatswain Billy (Tom Hopper). Complicating Flint’s plans is a character with a familiar name who seems poised to slow-burn his way to becoming a second lead in the series: John Silver (Luke Arnold), the future peg-legged villain of Treasure Island, here a sexy, scrappy scoundrel at the very beginning of his ill-fated pirating career, who hatches a dangerous scheme with a prostitute named Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy) that has far-reaching consequences.
When I first wrote (briefly) about the premiere episode of Black Sails a couple weeks ago, I compared the show to Game of Thrones. I might have given the impression that I was declaring Black Sails to be as good as Game of Thrones. What I really meant was that it is reminiscent of that show’s thematic interest in power and politics. But a better comparison — and better role model for Black Sails — is the late, great HBO drama Deadwood. After a thrilling battle scene at sea to open the series, Black Sails shifts to and settles on New Providence. There, we meet Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), who runs pirate crews and functions as their chief fence. She serves as a proxy for her father, Richard Guthrie, an allegedly respectable British aristocrat who not-so-secretly controls the black market in the Bahamas. (It says a lot about the writing of Black Sails that it actually makes pirate economics rather interesting.)
The premiere throws a lot of additional characters at you once we get to New Providence, including a rival crew that is younger, more reckless, and frankly, more compelling than Flint’s crew. They include a couple historical figures: Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), a vicious pirate; and Anne Bonny, an assassin with a really killer low brimmed hat, played by Clara Paget. The smartest and most colorful of Vane’s bunch is Jack Rackham, played by Toby Schmitz, and together, the three of them could just steal the series away from Flint.
Black Sails resides — and should reside — at that sweet spot between very serious and totally unpretentious. It’s a fantasy, but its historical/literary roots lend it a real-world resonance that some other, grander, more purely fantastical genre series lack. The first several episodes are light on high-seas adventure. Yet while that defined my expectation, I found the intrigues and conflicts on New Providence to be engrossing. That said, I hope the show lives up to that aforementioned Deadwood comparison and blows out the town with colorful minor characters, locales, and lived-in texture. This being Starz, there is much gratuitous nudity and sex. But some of it earned, and even rather funny. The women are exactly what you would fear — whores, ballbusters, nursemaids — at least, at the start. Paget’s Bonny, the token Lady Pirate, strikes a cool pose, yet is slow to develop. An actress with a more seasoned persona and real star presence would have been better for the role of Eleanor, but Hannah New grows into the part as the series progresses. The show — to its credit — invests much time in Max, producing richness. The third episode formally introduces a truly intriguing female character with an internal life worth mulling, the mysterious Mrs. Barlow (Louise Barnes), an ally to Flint who lives at a remove from the pirate action. The sets and costumes toggle from chintzy to serviceable from scene to scene. But as Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught us, low-fi production values can be easily overlooked and even be somewhat endearing if everything else is high quality. Yes, yes, Black Sails has a looooong way to go before it can be worthy of any additional comparison to Buffy. Or Deadwood. Or Game of Thrones. But there be smart storytelling and entertainment here, and potential to get better, too. Not even a guilty pleasure, Black Sails is worth a cruise. B