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?
AIRED ON 3/15/2014
Season 1 : Episode 8