Starz’s new pirate series, Black Sails (Saturdays, 10/9C) has it all: gunplay, swordplay, piratical acts at sea and booty (of both kinds). Also, economics and democracy! The characters are something out of Robert Louis Stevenson (in some cases, literally) but amped up for the discerning connoisseur of adventure of all kinds. In a way, it looks like it could almost be the pirate version of Deadwood, with its sex and violence dressing intelligent writing in unusual, gaudy tones – except that the language isn’t quite as epically vulgar.
Black Sails opens with a merchant ship being overtaken by pirates and two men hiding. One has taken a page from the captain’s log. Only one of them, a ruthless opportunist, is alive when the pirates find them.
The pirate captain is Flint (Toby Stephens, The Wire, Vexed) and he is no ordinary pirate – much to the dismay of his quartermaster, Gates (Mark Ryan), who worries that the crew may vote Flint out after a dry spell (see? democracy!). A rowdy fellow called Singleton (Anthony Bishop, (District 9) seems to have raised enough votes.
Even before cutting the merchant ship loose to flee a British man-o-war, we see the ship’s accountant going over the vessel’s cargo and noting that, after expenses, the profit is a pittance (economics!). Of the surviving crew, our opportunist, John Silver (Winners & Losers) is taken on – and only because he claims to be a cook.
When the ship returns we learn more about the ship’s base of operations, Nassau, New Providence Island. It is, essentially, a pirate town – the place pirates go to launder their booty through the respectable Guthrie family. Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) is the person who takes in the stolen goods and pays the pirates. Her father, Richard (Sean Michael, The Challenger Disaster) is responsible for finding the goods buyers. She has relationship with Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a local prostitute – and another opportunist (are beginning to see some patterns?).
Captain Charles Vane (Zack McGowan, Shameless) is Flint’s biggest rival and sower of discord on Flint’s ship, via Singleton – but the brains behind his success is Rackham (Toby Schmitz, Griff the Invisible), a slightly oily gent who may be even more of an opportunist than Silver.
Over the course of the two episodes made available to me for review, it becomes clear that Starz is looking to find a series that will be something more than the sex and violence of Spartacus; as whip smart as Boss, and genre transcendent – like Game of Thrones.
The series premiere, I., was written by series creators Jonathan Steinberg (Jericho, Human Target) and Robert Levine (Jericho, Human Target) and directed by Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, Doomsday). Marshall knows how to combine exposition, character and sex and violence in a way that feels organic – even when the balance isn’t quite there yet.
The cast – especially Arnold as Silver and New as Eleanor Guthrie – is almost spectacularly good. There’s good chemistry among the principals and this is a cast that can say as much with a look as with dialogue. The cinematography is lovely to behold – Marshall knows how make a movie look great.
Steinberg and Levine have created quite a world for Black Sails. The pirates may be ruthless in battle and conniving most of the rest of the time, but theirs is a world of a very basic one man, one vote democracy; a world where economics is important, and a world where women can hold real power. It’s a surprising world – we don’t generally think of pirates as much more than hooligans on the oceans – but these aspects of pirate life are historically accurate even though they are used in what amounts to a prequel to Treasure Island – a very good prequel, to be sure.
It’s also a world that is on the cusp of change – and, for the pirates, not in a good way. It’s that impending change that has Captain Flint looking for a big score (Flint has a vision for the future – one that sets him apart from almost everyone else on the show) – and which looks to color the entire series.
Black Sails may not quite have all of its disparate elements balanced as yet, but the two eps I’ve seen suggest that it will happen soon. Even so, this is one cracking yarn – with the potential to become something great.
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Photos courtesy of Starz