Black Sails Series Premiere Review: More Than Arrr-Right

By Tim Surette

Jan 26, 2014

Black Sails S01E01: "I."

Pirate's honor here: I was all prepared to use the headline "Bland, Ho!" because I didn't expect Black Sails to be anything more than the next Starz series that I would give up on a few episodes in. But by the time Captain Flint and his bloodied face handed Billy that blank page once the big main-event fight ended and "I." wrapped, I realized I didn't dislike Black Sails at all. In fact, my face was practically pressed against the screen. 

The word "romp" is often used to describe shows that aren't necessarily great but still manage to be entertaining, and after one episode, Black Sails, with its rising and falling galleons and bosoms, is definitely a romp. And let's not kid ourselves here, low expectations played a part in my favorable attitude. But there's a hint of something greater than just slicing and sexing to Black Sails, and it's the same thing that some other critics are bemoaning about the series.

I dig the story. In fact, I dig it enough that I didn't even notice that the first episode—apart from some intense bookends—was fairly light on mindless sea action. The opening ship battle, which I'll remind you was directed by Game of Thrones' "Blackwater" director Neil Marshall and cleverly (okay maybe not SUPER cleverly) shown from the perspective of Captain Flint's target to provide a better sense of the terror pirates bring, was everything we hoped the series would be minus a few dismemberments and disembowelings. And the final hand-to-hand contest between Flint and Singleton was elevated from a basic brawl to a primal, blood-soaked battle to the death. But in between, pillaging was put aside for power struggles and paper-trailing, turning what some expected to be high-seas happenings into terra firma times. Not enough sailing and cannonballs, some say! Well I've been on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland enough times to know that pirates aren't perennially oceanbound, and I for one enjoy the land-locked adventures of chasing women, being chased by overweight women, and enticing a dog to hand over the keys to the jail cell they're in. 

Black Sails' first episode accurately (I guess; I'm not a pirate scholar, despite riding pirate-themed rides at Disneyland) captured the chaos and lawlessness of pirate life, even among pirate ranks, and going forward, that should keep the show afloat. Captain Flint's hold on his ship, the mighty Walrus, was tenuous as Scarface Singleton rallied enough backers to get himself promoted to Cap'n. The uprising was in part Flint's own doing, as he put his personal thirst for wealth ahead of regularly padding the pockets of his crew and pursued the legend of a Spanish Galleon stuffed to the portholes with booty. That's what makes Black Sails interesting to me; these pirates are barbaric and willing to turn on their leaders at the sight of a shiny gold coin, so pirate politics regularly come into play and having trustworthy alliances is key. 

But why's that so different from ladder-climbing in any other genre? Here, the top rung is occupied by Mr. Flint, whom I find fascinating (and who is played magnificently by Toby Stephens). He reminds me, in some sense, of a more outwardly sinister Marcus Chaplin, captain of Last Resort's U.S.S. Colorado, in that his motives and level of competence aren't always clear. Flint might just be insane. He's definitely an egomaniac ("I AM YOUR KING," he bellowed to his buddy Billy even though the Walrus was more of a commune than a monarchy), he's obsessive, he's ridiculously intelligent, and he's a risk-taker. Those are all characteristics that would make following him somewhat troubling. They're also characteristics that will make him an awesome television character. His whole plan to maintain command of his ship relied on Billy making a split-second decision to lie to the entire crew, and this after he bugged out on the guy about being king. Ballsy! And Billy, the ship's second smartest resident, knew they were in better hands with Flint than any of the other tough-talkers. The fact that no one knew Flint's plan except Flint added extra weight to this scene, and the fact that Flint's plan came from unbridled personal obsession and was insane made it even better. I like this guy, a lot. I'm drawn to him like a siren.

There's plenty to like in the comic-bookish assortment of other characters, too. Jon Snow reject John Silver has the benefit of Black Sails' well-read audience knowing that he eventually becomes the most piratey pirate of all pirates, and that soon he'll be more than a fresh-faced impostor on board the Walrus. Eleanor Guthrie, daughter of black market master Richard, is saltier than the seas around New Providence Island, and curses like a sailor who just hit his thumb with a hammer. And she's a lesbian! At least for now. An F-bombing cute-as-a-button maybe bisexual tough blondie is ridiculous, and exactly what I want from a show like this. Captain Vane gives off similar vibes to Pope from Falling Skies—a good thing—and will be Flint's biggest threat. He's already a mean sonuvabitch. And his hench people, the hipster 'stached Rackham and cosplay inspiration Anne Bonny, are suitably interesting based on their costumes and one-note personalities alone; they admirably stand out from the rest of the series' sprawling cast. And nothing helps define a character like Bonny more than the simple line, "I want to fuck." Cheers to you, m'lady. I think I like you. Finally, Max the whore plays on whore stereotypes—she's cunning, slutty, and smarter than you think—but so far, it works.

In its first episode, Black Sails didn't need to do anything except distinguish these characters from one another and give them a sense of direction, and mission accomplished, I'd say. That's not easy with a cast as large as this; Game of Thrones required several viewings before most people could separate the Lannisters from the Baratheons, but on Black Sails everything is gleefully simple, which is just how it should be with this show. I say "this show" a lot because Black Sails doesn't need to strive for awards, it just has to be fun.

And of course, part of that fun stems from the Starz way of doing things. There are boobies! Totally unnecessary lesbian scenes! And there was one bushy bearded clam that came with a corny Blackbeard joke! Maybe you're a more sophisticated gentleman than I, but camp and smut are right up my alley when my brain needs a rest, and I make no apologies for that. 

All told, the Starz stigma will probably keep Black Sails from really sailing into the waters of great television dramas. That's too bad, because there's an interesting ambition behind the series from creator Jonathan E. Steinberg that may have trouble surfacing above the well-sculpted breasts. But if you know how to compartmentalize your viewing and learn how to watch for both, Black Sails will be better than you expected.


– The other reviews I've read say that there isn't much action in the next three episodes, either. We'll see if it becomes a problem, or if story carries the series like I hope it can.

– Eleanor: "Can I tell you what happens with I stand near an earner? My pussy gets wet. In which case, I will go fuck myself." That is terrible dialogue, but I love it because watching a darling face like Hannah New's utter such filth is hilarious.

– Max: "The world is so full of surprises, let it surprise you," she says as she fingerbangs her girlfriend. Okay then!

– I wish the series was MORE violent. Like, arms getting cut off violent. 

– Some of the CG shots did not look good, but some looked great. I doubt there'll be much consistency in that department.

– Maybe it's just because I live in dreary old Portland, but I never got sick of seeing these location shots. They really add the escapist feel. 

What'd you think of Black Sails' series premiere? Will you be back for Episode 2?

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  • IanCooper Jul 08, 2015

    I'm willing to overlook the ridiculous dialogue for something like this, but a line has to be drawn somewhere, and the atrocious casting goes way over that line. The show might not be so bad if only two of the main characters were not so horribly miscast: Luke Arnold barely pulls off John Silver, despite the fact that, at 5' 9" he's hardly "long". Hannah Low, on the other hand, clearly cannot handle the role she's been given - at all:" she looks and acts about as convincing as Alicia Silverstone might have been if she'd been given the role. I wouldn't be surprised if she only got the role because she was the only actor of those who auditioned who was willing to do copious nude scenes.

  • ben45tpy Apr 27, 2014

    Not too shabby, I'll be watchin some more.

  • woz22 Feb 19, 2014

    I really liked this series so far a bit like spartacus on the high seas I am mean it silly dialogue and daft characters but thats the fun of it. Better then that turd Moonfleet and eddie Izzard Pirate show. I like the Vinnie Jones lookalike Captain Vane and Toby Stephens is great fun.

  • ravynjensen Feb 03, 2014

    i enjoyed it, but the opening credits blew my mind, gorgeous, on par with the animated/clockwork map in the GoT opening creds.

  • andreweather Feb 02, 2014

    It was... dull. Parts of it were good, I loved the lesbian smuggler chick, she was actually interesting (and not just the sex scene you perverts), as were some of the side characters, but the 'main' 'plot', duller than dishwater.

    It had major problems with showing how long things took, they were zipping around all over the place and there was a major disconnect there, and the ships were... badly done.

    Someone needs to hand these guys a hornblower boxset on how to shoot ships.

  • Homer1338 Feb 02, 2014

    I so wanted this to be good but oh god its so boring. even the numerous titties couldn't save it.

  • MarlboroMagpi Jan 30, 2014

    I hold off watching it till today and I was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps I had low expectation and ended up having a very enjoyable hour.

    Many of the characters are very interesting and there is actually a few stories to tell. I guess it helps they have treasure island to base on.

    I really liked Jessica Parker Kennedy's character. Captain Flint, Eleanor Guthrie, Captain Vane and Anne Bonny are all well cast and played to almost perfection. Zach McGowan was fantastic in Shameless and he looks good playing Captain Vane too.

    The only one I am not sure about is Luke Arnold. Since he is playing John Silver who is suppose to be the lead character in this series, I wanted him to be more charismatic. I have not seen enough of that yet. Hopes he proves me wrong.

  • Whatifnuts Jan 27, 2014

    I liked it a lot more than I would have expected and will be back to see if it keeps me interested. But I'm definitely interested in seeing how Captain Flint ends up being insane and how Long John Silver ends up like he is in Treasure Island. And other than that the other characters were also interesting enough to keep my attention throughout the first episode.

  • dashheadlong Jan 27, 2014

    The way Tim constantly insults Starz, I'd have to assume he never seriously watched Spartacus. Better writing in there than a thousand Breaking Bads or The Wires...

  • marcusj1973 Jan 27, 2014

    I heard about, previewed and watched this series pilot all within a 90 minute period and while I'm not entirely convinced yet, I think I dig it.

    "Not enough sailing and cannonballs, some say!"...those are the same folks who say of 'The Walking Dead', "Too much talking and not enough zombies!". I consider them the lowest common denominator of viewer and need not be catered to.

    "Jon Snow reject John Silver"...HA! It's funny cause it's true.

    Walrus...Worst. Pirate ship name. Ever.

    When talking about a Starz show, I think you can only really compare it to other Starz shows's Starz, and they've got a style all their own. The first thing that was glaringly obvious to me is 'Black Sails' (thus far) is missing the grab you by the face and make you pay attention sort of cast. In 'Spartacus', Andy Whitfield was magnetic from the very get go and complimented by John Hannah, Manu Bennett & Lucy Lawless...that's an attention grabbing cast. With 'Davini's Demons", Tom Riley channelling his inner Gregory House and bookended by Tom Bateman & Elliot Cowan is also pretty attention grabbing. But based on nothing but the pilot, I'm not getting that vibe from 'Black Sails'...yet.

    I like the character of Mr Flint, but I still haven't forgiven Toby Stephens for ruining James Bond with the ultra craptacular 'Die Another Day'. It's not entirely his fault, but he shoulders some blame that I haven't been able to get over yet. I know it's part of the story to see John Silver go from mild mannered seaman {giggle} to badass pirate, but Luke Arnold just comes off so vanilla right now. And having developed a little crush on Jessica Parker Kennedy from her 'Secret Circle' days, I'm plenty okay with her getting naked and swinging both ways...but I'm not quite buying it yet. Jumping from The CW to Starz is a big leap and she's gonna need some actual acting chops to pull it off.

    On the up side, Hannah New as Eleanor Guthrie...fantastic. Charisma, humour and a broken enough character to keep her interesting for a while I think. Captain Vane and his sidekick Anne Bonny, also great. We'll see what kind of depth each has, but if they end up as nothing but straight up villains, I think I'm okay with that.

    Not the instant "I'm all in" like I had upon watching the 'Spartacus' and 'Davinci's Demons' pilots, but certainly more than enough to keep me coming back to the high seas.

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