As some of you may know, I’ve been reviewing the Starz TV show, Black Sails. I have not written about the show here, partially because I had a hard time making up my mind about the show.
The premise worried me from the start. It involves a “realistic” world of pirates… But one where Long John Silver and Captain Flint are two of the main players. For those who don’t recognize the names (can that be possible?) these are characters from Treasure Island. The other really big problem was the executive producer, Michael Bay, the man responsible for the loudest summer movies of all time. It just didn’t look good.
But then I received a phone call. It was Mike Cecchini from DenofGeek. They wanted a pirate expert to review the show for their site. I jumped at the chance. And since then I’ve been posting every week, letting people know what’s good and what’s bad about the show.
The first episode introduced the characters and did most of the things I expected of a competent series on a cable network – including hyper violence and lesbian sex. But they had some honest-to-god pirate scholars on the payroll, and some stuff looked good coin out of the gate. For instance, when the pirates robbed their first ship, they didn’t kill anybody. Instead, they did what real pirates did, and started recruiting.
Some weird stuff cropped up, too. Eleanor Guthrie, the one requisite blond/pretty female character was just as shrill, caustic and unstable as any woman concocted by men who are afraid of feminists. And the smart, thoughtful woman (Max) was always betting beaten up, gang-raped, etc. I had my doubts.
Probably the lowest point in the show was when the pirate Jack Rackham showed up wearing a pair of sunglasses. I was already annoyed because the Jack from the show bore so little resemblance to the tough-guy historical pirate. (That’s my personal problem by the way… the character in the show is interesting enough and serves the plot very well. We all have our little issues.)
The sunglasses issue was enough to cause me to complain – and I actually got a reply from the show! It turned out that they had actually done research on this, and it was just BARELY possible for the sunglasses to be real.
More problematic were the tactics used by Captain Flint it was pretty obvious that the scripts just kind of said “we need to make this take several hours” and so Flint would mysteriously forget how to use an axe, or steal stuff.
But overall, it was good. Charles Vane, the character who seemed obviously a one-dimensional bad-guy developed some real personality. John Silver had some great nods to his later self in Treasure Island. He learned to cook. He also started a relationship with the mixed race girl, Max, possibly as a foreshadowing of Silver’s mulatto wife in the book.
And it was the most accurate representation of pirates I’d ever seen.
Over the summer, I watched the NBC series, Crossbones, and learned something else. When a network isn’t really behind a series, things can fall apart fast. I watched NBC mutilate what could have been a really good pirate show, and became a lot more affectionate toward Black Sails.
This year the show has been fantastic. The pirates have never once forgotten how to pirate. The cinematography is beautiful. This was true before, but in its second season the show has a little more time to linger over a vine twining up the stairway of a ruined house, the play of light on water, or the glare of sunlight.
The characters are no longer rushed. They are no longer forced by plot points to do stupid stuff just to keep the plot moving. The plot has become organic, flowing. Even Eleanor has almost completely stopped being a bitch.
The last episode took place over a single evening. Shot entirely by firelight, each character confronts personal crisis, forced to decide how much they will give up in order to have the thing they want most in the world. And just like real pirates, what most of them want is freedom.
Black Sails has been picked up for a third season.