Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum……..you won’t get any of that here.
Yesterday saw the release of Black Sails, a STARZ original series from executive producer Michael Bay, on Blu-ray and DVD. Taking a more “real world” approach, the program is a very different look into the world of pirates. No parrots. No peg legs. No “Davy Jones’ Locker”. On this show, we get to see pirates as they would’ve been back in 1715, also known as the “Golden Age of Piracy”. The former colony of New Providence Island is the setting of our tale about the many buccaneers who make that their main port of call. It’s a place where the goods that the pirates steal are traded back into commerce using reputable business as it’s cover. The island is basically one big money laundering scheme and is very profitable. Created by Jonathan Steinberg and Robert Levine, Black Sails is meant to be a “real” window into the dark and gritty lives of pirates and it is. It just so happens that even dark and gritty can end up being pretty boring if it’s not presented right.
The eight episode series follows Captain Flint (played by Toby Stephens), a rough and tumble captain who’s feared by many…..except maybe his own crew. He’s on his way to getting voted off the ship if he doesn’t come up with some way to rally the men and land a big score. And he has a score in mind – a Spanish gold ship that has more than enough money to satisfy his men as well as his own ambitious pursuits. In order to accomplish this caper, he needs to ally himself with miss Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), the daughter of New Providence’s local smuggling kingpin who turns pirate booty into profits. She’s having a few troubles of her own as she attempt to maintain order on the island, dealing with not only unruly crews who think she’s gained too much power but also her own personal problems with Captain Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) and his associates Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny. Another roadblock in all their plans is one John Silver (Luke Arnold), a new addition to Captain Flint’s crew who’s stolen an important piece of info integral to their plans and is attempting to sell it with the help of Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a local prostitute who knows her way around the island. There’s plenty of scheming, swindling and sex to be had.
There is no denying that this is a very pretty looking show. With picturesque locales and detailed sets and props, the program is filled with a lovely amount of period looking eye candy. This being a STARZ series, there’s also a LOT of eye candy of another variety. It’s an understatement to say that the lavish sets are a character unto themselves as they do a great service in giving the show the authentic look they’re going for. The costumes are also very well put together and not only immediately draw you into the time setting but also tell you what you need to know about each of the main characters just by looking at them. But set dressing can only go so far. Once you’ve pulled the viewer into your world, you must show them something that will make them want to stay there. And that is the main problem with Black Sails. Once you’ve seen an episode, there’s really no reason to stick around.
The idea of taking historic pirates, like Charles Vane, and characters from Treasure Island, like John Silver, and dropping them into a “real world” pirate show is a sound one. You get the best of both worlds as you can play with a famous fictional character while having a historical one to lend some credibility. But you have to marry the realism to the fantasy in a way that will actually excite the viewer. Here we get a great deal of “historic” representations of pirates. We see that the pirates had a right to vote out their captains, that they traded their goods with “upstanding citizens” who could sell goods back to the very colonies and countries they stole from, and that they did more than just sail the high seas looking for new ships to rob. But people tuned in to see pirates. When they’re not out on the sea, plundering and pillaging, pirates are a pretty boring lot. Instead of high seas adventure, we’re given drunken, angry men arguing over plans like they’re at a union meeting. Not my idea of “dark and gritty”.
There are a few strong performances in the show. Both Toby Schmitz and Clare Paget did great jobs bringing the characters of Rackham and Anne Bonny to life. Schmitz is delightful as he schemes his way through life and Paget is quite the bad-ass as one of the scariest pirates on the show. Tom Hooper is fantastic as quarter master Billy Bones, who spends just as much time playing detective as pirate. Mark Ryan also delivers a strong performance as Mr. Gates, the best friend and confident of Captain Flint. Unfortunately, while each were given their time to shine, that time was very limited. The only actor out of the “lead” roles who truly showed some depth with their performance was Zach McGowan as Vane, which was surprizing since his character moped around the island for the most part.
The lack of great performances can be easily attributed to the showrunners not really knowing how to execute their vision. They wanted real and gritty but what they produced felt very much like a raunchy soap. There was no real revelations in character. Just a number of scenes duplicating the same story beats to drive home the simpliest of plot points. There was only a handfull of exciting action sequences in all and they were staggered throughout the 8 episodes. I understand the importance of building characters and fleshing out the surroundings, but come on. The story that was told in 8 installments could’ve easily been told in 4 and would’ve been more satisfying.
Although the production values are top notch and the premise is an interesting one, Black Sails is not something I would want to re-visit any time soon. I hope that with the arrival of Season 2 of the series in January 24th, the creators will have learned their lesson and added a bit more of that non-realistic flare that I feel a pirate story should have. If you’re interested in checking it out for yourself, Black Sails: The Complete First Season is now available wherever Blu-rays and DVDs are sold.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!