With its debut during the second frenetic wave of series premiers in January and its first season only comprising eight episodes, Starz’s Black Sails might have flown under many a television connoisseur’s radar. My advice is to try to remedy this before the second season premiere (Starz renewed the show before one episode of the first season aired) because you’ll want to be ready to jump on the train, or boat as it were, when things pick up from the season one finale.
The Basics: This series is a ‘prequel’ to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island where we meet the legendary characters John Silver and William ‘Bones’ Manderly not only before they were legends but when they were the supporting players in the story of Captain James Flint (magnetically portrayed by Toby Stephens) and his quest to obtain the treasure that puts the treasure in Treasure Island. Season one is spent with Flint trying to pull together the manpower and political support needed to mount the nigh impossible campaign of overtaking the heavily fortified Spanish treasure galleon, the Urca de Lima. Flint successfully finds himself on the high seas in pursuit of his prey, but not before leaving a trail of betrayed friends, new enemies, and dead and/or tortured bodies in his wake. In the finale, Flint battles the Urca de Lima and all seems lost when Flint’s ships all take on heavy damage sending the surviving crew into the drink, including Flint. Flint is saved by his crew, their mutiny tabled for the moment, when all realize that they aren’t stranded alone on the desert island: the battle caused the Urca de Lima to run aground, leaving its crew stranded and its treasure strewn across the beach and ripe for the taking.
The Good: With the season only spanning eight episodes, the action was tight, story focused and gripping. While we got a few twists and turns, rather than coming off as filler, they informed the characters and story in a way that upped the stakes and revealed more layers to not just the characters motivations but the plight of the whole way of life as a whole.
The actors all gave good game in their portrayals, Toby Stephen’s of course shining as the cutthroat Captain Flint who you alternately feared, hated, and fleetingly sympathized with before hating again. It is a fine balancing act portraying someone so singularly obsessed to the point of murderous madness and yet find something root worthy in him, but Stephen’s manages to make you not want to see him sink to his demise in the finale.
Other stand outs include Zane McGowan as Captain Charles Vane (Flint’s rival), Toby Schmitz as Jack Rackham (aka Calico Jack, who seems to have precognitivly taken his fashion cues from The Time’s Morris day), Clara Paget as the take no crap Anne Bonny, and the biggest and most welcome surprise, Jessica Parker Kennedy who shed her teenage witch Melissa from The CW’s The Secret Circle to portray the savvy, determined prostitute, Max, who may have one of the most complex character arc of the season and pulls it quite admirably.
The Bad: A very solid beginning for the series whose only big flaw was not having enough time to give due to all of the intriguing characters, especially Jack ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham and the intriguing Anne Bonny, a female pirate whose exploits could carry its own show. Thankfully we have another season to get to see these two in more pirating action.
The Unexpected: For a show produced by Michael Bay, Black Sails was surprisingly low on explosions, chases, and physical action and appreciatively high on an examination of the politics of the era, especially those of pirates and just how that culture came to be, and the culture of the black market trade community. Less Pirates of the Caribbean and more Game of Pirates, Black Sails is
The Surprisingly Awesome: The title sequence which boasts striking images of colonial imperialism, black iron skeletons skulking about, and formidable ships sailing on black water oceans set to the pulsing, menacing dirge composed by everyone’s favorite television music composer, Bear McCreary, more than does its job of setting the tone of the ruthless, political drama that is about to unfold. It’s a sequence that stays with you and find yourself humming later on that evening and even the next day and is a shoo in for an Emmy nomination if not a win.
In Total: Black Sails is not your Disney-fied, cheeky Jack Sparrow romp pirate tale. It’s an adult pirate adventure drama that has its humorous moments but doesn’t shy away from the complexities of the pirating game nor the unpredictable reality and brutality of the era. If you’re interested in sampling a realistic exploration of pirate culture but wrapped in the flavorful, fun characters of Treasure Island to go down a bit more smoothly, season one of Black Sails makes for a fine binge feast that will leave you in anticipation of the second course due to come 2015.