Sunday, 26 January 2014

Pilot review: Starz's BLACK SAILS

Sunday, 26 January 2014

written by Jonathan E. Steinberg & Robert Levine | directed by Neil Marshall

Now that Spartacus has finished its bloodthirsty tale, Starz is desperate for another hit to replace it (no, Da Vinci's Demons wasn't it). It's now pinning its hope on a tough-as-nails 18th-century pirate drama produced by Michael Bay (Transformers) and Neil Marshall (The Descent), who also directs this opener. But it's probably best to remember it's created by Jonathan Steinberg (Human Target) and Robert Levine (Jericho). Black Sails is an imagined prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel Treasure Island, if anyone wants to know what Long John Silver was like as a young man, and why he came to mockingly name his parrot Captain Flint.

It's 1715 and (a very human) Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) is on an mission to find and loot a Spanish galleon containing almost unimaginable riches, while keeping that fact a secret from his near-mutinous crew. After Flint ransacks a ship in the West Indies containing sailor John Silver (Luke Arnold), who pretends to be an excellent cook so they'll spare his life, this first hour drops the action and shifts focus onto characters and politics, as Flint tries to find a missing page torn from a Captain's Log that indicates where his Spanish booty can be found. We also meet a variety of people in this cut-throat world: black marketeer Richard Guthrie (Sean Michael) and his lesbian daughter Eleanor (Hannah New), Flint's boatswain Billy Bones (Merlin's Tom Hopper), and real-life buccaneers Captain Vane (Zach McGowan) and knife-wielding Anne Bonny (Clara Paget).

It's a heady mix of characters (some created by Stevenson, others genuine pirates of the era), and the basic outline of what Black Sails is about has merit. I just found myself disinterested in too much, too quickly. There wasn't a character who stood out from the crowd, as Stephens didn't make a big enough impression. I was initially excited about the pirate genre coming to television (NBC also has Crossbones in development), but this might be territory small-screen budgets can't do justice with. There's a tangible lack of seafaring going on, as it's expensive and difficult to make look real, and I'm told this doesn't improve as the first season progresses. That wouldn't matter too much if there were fantastic characters to get behind, even if they're stuck being land lubbers, but Black Sails doesn't have a Johnny Depp-style "secret weapon" the Pirates of the Caribbean films benefited from.

As a premium cable drama, some will be pleased the language is appropriately salt and there's full-frontal nudity (which does sell the setting and period well), but such things don't make audiences tune in. Spartacus was also sneered at for being shallow and exploitative in its early days, but it quickly proved it understood its theme and could develop a story while getting audiences hooked into each character's concerns. Perhaps Black Sails could do the same, over time, and it's encouraging Starz have already commissioned a second season, so you can take the plunge without fearing it'll be axed and leave plots unresolved.

Overall, Black Sails didn't manage to pull me into its story, although something chimed with me during Flint's speech about the real enemy of pirates being civilisation. This show is set during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1730), so maybe there's something deeper to be told about a seagoing, lawless lifestyle that largely went extinct. I quite like the idea that its pirates are a dying breed, existing on the fringes of a society that's encroaching on their existence more and more, hoping to find this bounty as a kind of "retirement plan". I just hope Black Sails can do something with that idea, rather than just throw vulgarity and nudity at a thin, overpopulated storyline.

It clearly wants to be Deadwood-at-sea, but right now it's just driftwood.

25 January 2014 | Starz