When it was announced that Michael Bay would be executive producing a pirate show for Starz, there was a fair bit of eye rolling – after all, we were talking about the producer/director of some of the most ponderous, oafish films ever made.
What we got was Black Sails, a smart, fast-paced action adventure series that really explored the culture of 18th Century pirates – a series that showed the pirates to have, however bloody, a true democracy and keen financial sense as well as the kind of bloodthirstiness and libido we were expecting. It was a very pleasant surprise.
The series is centered around the ambitious Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), who has a grand plan – if he can only avoid being voted out of his captaincy by a crew that find his latest strikes to be less than financially rewarding, and John Silver (Luke Arnold) – who holds the key to Flint’s success in his head.
Before the series premiere had ended, we had learned about the business of piracy and the democratic conventions that were used in running both individual ships and the pirate haven of New Providence Island. We also saw that women were, for the most part, equal – the town’s trading center was run by Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) – the daughter of the man who established it and who eventually wrested its control from him – and one of the more formidable pirates was Anne Bonny (Clara Paget).
Flint’s plan was to find the ultimate score and outfit New Providence Island so well that if/when the English or Spanish – the most formidable naval powers in the world – should come down on them, they would be prepared and able to stake their claim as a free country.
That plan was temporarily upset when Silver tore a page from a ship’s log just before he was captured by Flint’s crew. In order to save his life, he had to become part of Flint’s crew and destroy the page after committing it to memory – making himself indispensable.
The first season Black Sails was filled with fighting and sexual sequences, but everything revolved around the establishing of the pirate society and the manner in which it was run – as well as leading us through the motivations of various characters. From the more intellectual Flint to the very primal Captain Charles Vane (Zach McGowan, to the cunning Silver, from the ambitious Guthrie and Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy) to Vane’s slightly skewed voice of reason/second-in-command, Rackham (Toby Schmitz)the series built up a solid cast of intriguing and colorful characters.
Series creators Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine wrote the first three episodes and season finale and they created a world that was complex – both in terms of plot and subplots and in terms of richly developed characters – and intriguing. They clearly did a lot of research to get the basic details necessary to building their world, but then pegged the story round a couple of characters from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, Game of Thrones) directed the series premiere and the third episode and got the show off to a roaring start.
The end result was a thoroughly engaging, raucous, randy and very smart season of eight episodes in which not one felt like it missed it the mark. Qualitatively, it may be the best of Starz’s original dramas to date.
Where the home video release of Black Sails disappoints is in the packaging and bonus material. The packaging is a card stock foldout in a card stock sleeve – the discs are inserted into slots in the foldout, making scuffing a definitely possibility. It’s also a chore to pull the discs out and replace them in the foldout. My review copy was noticeably compacted in delivery, though the discs were fine . The lenticular cover doesn’t really do much, so it’s a bit of a waste.
Bonus features: Black Sails: An Inside Look (a decent making of doc); Dressed To Kill (a look at the show’s costuming); Pirate Camp (the cast training for the series’ action); Folklore Is Finished (how research was used to make Black Sails authentic); A Place In History (blacks in the pirates world), and Building The Behemoth (building the ship set). The running time of the complete bonus materials is barely over an hour – and no audio commentaries!
Grade: Black Sails, Season One – A
Grade: Features – B-
Final Grade: B+