Review: Starz’s ‘Black Sails’ a draggy, landlocked pirate saga

Senior Television Writer
01.23.14 41 Comments

“Black Sails,” Starz’s new Michael Bay-produced pirate adventure series (it premieres Saturday at 9 p.m.), opens with an elaborate battle sequence between two ships at sea. Cannons roar, swords flash, bodies go flying through the air, and if there isn’t a chyron saying, “Look at all the money we put on the screen!,” it’s at least implied.

This sense of epic, expensive swashbuckling action lasts about five minutes, an elaborate bait-and-switch before “Black Sails” settles into landlocked tedium, as the series suggests a pirate’s life for me, you or anyone else involves far more bureaucracy than pillaging.

The year is 1715, the setting the West Indies, and our hero is Captain Flint, an allegedly fearsome scourge of the seas played by a half-awake Toby Stephens. After looting another ship and taking aboard a canny young sailor named John Silver (Luke Arnold), Flint and his crew head into port, where we are taught an awful lot about the politics and economics of the pirate game, from the absolute democracy of the crew (who are on the verge of voting out Flint as blame for a series of lean months) to the elaborate deals cut with local fence Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New).

And these details of how pirates actually functioned are interesting, but only to a point, and the first four episodes of “Black Sails” – with barely any drops of saltwater to be seen after that impressive opening – go well past that point. It asks us to keep track of the crews of two different pirate ships – the other led by shirtless, imposing real-life privateer Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) – and an assortment of warring factions on the island where they’re all based. It’s the kind of sprawling cast that’s defined past cable greats like “The Wire” or “Game of Thrones,” but instead of inviting us to tell all these new faces apart through interesting characterization, we’re mostly asked to distinguish them by facial hair and scars. (As Vane’s sidekick Anne Bonny, Clara Paget barely speaks at all, but stands out simply because she’s a woman.) McGowan (he played goofy, often-naked Jody on “Shameless”) gives one of the few performances that pops, and made me wish the show was about Vane and not the droopy Flint.

Either way, though, there would be far more talk than action – most of it involving Flint’s convoluted plan to hunt and loot a Spanish treasure galleon – which isn’t a sin in some genres but is a tough pill to swallow in a pirate saga. “Black Sails” fits the Starz brand of intensely violent and sexual(*) period pieces with impressive production design and costuming. Like most of those shows, though, it’s all flash and no substance, and the flash fades pretty quickly, no doubt right around the point the production accountant realized just how much it costs to film extended sequences with ships in water.

(*) Though the first bit of gratuitous nudity in the pilot doesn’t come until 24 minutes in. Clearly, someone at Starz had a talk with the producers, because the second episode opens with a pair of naked lesbians.   

This was supposed to be a big year for pirates on TV, with NBC set to introduce John Malkovich in “Crossbones” in a month. But then NBC bumped “Crossbones” in favor of the return of “Hannibal,” and it’s in limbo (possibly hanging out in the portal inside Malkovich’s head?). That leaves the seas clear to be ruled by “Black Sails,” but the Starz show doesn’t seem all that interested in the gig.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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