A decade or so ago, there was a running joke/conversation/cliche on the Internet and amongst geek-type people: which would win in a fight, Vikings, zombies, pirates, or ninjas? The people behind that argument are apparently running television these days, remembering that conversation, and deciding to make TV shows based on it. So far, it's working: AMC's The Walking Dead and History's Vikings are two of the biggest hits on cable television. Ninjas may be a ways away, as American TV execs attempt to figure out a way to make that subject also about attractive white people. But pirates, pirates are here with Starz' Black Sails, trying to be badass, morally ambiguous, and sexy, all at once. And right now, those pirates are just boring enough to be a hit if they can capture the zeitgeist like those boring zombies did.
The core problem with Black Sails, at least after its pilot, is that none of its characters are particularly interesting. Almost without exception, they're broad traits more than they are people. There's the smart prostitute, the loyal first mate, the tough-as-nails woman in power, cruel pirate captain, and so on. Obviously it's difficult to get depth into every character across a 65-minute premiere, but the characters don't seem to suggest depth. They're entirely focused on what's going on in the moment, and don't seem to have any underlying happiness or sadness or wittiness.
The latter is perhaps the biggest failing. Pirates are usually played as swashbuckling fun on the screen, but Black Sails is deadly serious. The only exception to that is John Silver, played by Luke Arnold with a self-satisfied smirk, even when he's confused. Having any kind of sense of humor at all would put him above most of the other characters, except that he gets stuck with the brunt of Black Sails' second biggest problem: its plot.
With all the national politicking that could be done in the colonial era, all the potential character ambitions, Black Sails decides instead to go with a Macguffin chase. But first it spends the bulk of the episode engaging in one of my biggest critical pet peeves: when characters talk about what they're trying to accomplish without saying what it is, just to maintain a mystery for the audience. Happily Black Sails resolves the question before the end of the pilot—it's a Spanish treasure ship—but it still left a bad taste in my mouth. That it feels like the first quest John Silver is given on his anti-hero's journey in the role-playing game of Black Sails doesn't help either.
Yet I still find myself feeling relatively positive about Black Sails. Why? Because while it doesn't have its priorities straight now, it has plenty of building blocks that can be used to become a great show. First, it clearly has a budget that's not going to constrain it. The scenes on the ships and on the docks, especially, look solid and impressive in a way, accenting the show's drama instead of distracting from it. Hiring Neil Marshall of The Descent and “Blackwater” fame as the pilot's director works out quite well. And, of course, Bear McCreary is one of the best genre soundtrack composers around.
Second, while I don't necessarily like the narrow focus on a single object as the initial driver of the plot, enough different factions or potential factions exist that this could easily turn into, at the least, a backstab-happy story a la Justified, The Vampire Diaries, or Scandal. There's the English, the Spanish, the corrupt governor, his daughter, the colonies, at least two pirate captains, and so on. Get them forming and dissolving alliances enough and it'll sort itself out over time. And, to be fair, it's not like a captured treasure fleet never caused political shocks historically.
The most potentially interesting aspect of Black Sails is its conception of “freedom.” The pirates have set up a society untouched by government that they consider to be free, but that freedom exists in uneasy harmony between violence and democracy—at the end of the pilot, Captain Flint, rather than face a vote, he decides to engage in legal single combat in order to maintain his captaincy. This sort of debate as to what freedom might mean and how to maintain it against the traditional European concepts of national power could be fascinating, especially given the proximity of the American colonies, themselves working slowly toward independence.
A side aspect of that, as yet not directly commented upon, is that Black Sails gets to be diverse and may have the chance to use that for storytelling. As the pirates are outside the conventional hierarchical structures of the European nation-states, women and non-whites have the opportunity to be in positions of power.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Starz has a history with semi-historical shows that start slow and turn into cult hits, thanks to Spartacus. I'm not sure if there's any significant connection between the two shows other than network and historicity, but hey, any pirate port in a pirate storm.
- Speaking of Spartacus, that show's much vaunted genital parity is nowhere to be seen here, as the pilot is filled with boobs, boobs, boobs, and more boobs. I did laugh at the “Blackbeard” reveal, though. I am apparently 12.