Black Sails: Starz’s New Pirate Show Really Floats My Boat



(He-he, sorry, couldn’t resist that title.)

I did not subscribe to Starz a few weeks ago. Then I stumbled on a preview episode of their new pirate series Black Sails on the Audience Channel.

I thought, “What the heck, I’ll watch for a few minutes. Michael Bay is an executive producer, I’ll probably HATE it and turn it off right away.”

Within about 15 minutes I was totally hooked and within a few moments of the end credits rolling I was a subscriber to Starz.

I have loved pirate movies since I was a little kid (along with the Western, it was one of my favorite genres). But since then, with the lone exception of The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, pirate movies have either been horrendous crap or nonexistent.

I can’t say I’m much of a fan of The Pirates of the Caribbean movie, either. They’re well done, but I don’t really care for the supernatural aspects. The other issue for me is that Captain Jack Sparrow is really a parody of a pirate character.

I have long wanted to see a movie with some pirates who act like real pirates.

And, boy, Black Sails provides those in spades.

The premise is a clever mix of genuine pirate history and pirate literary figures. A prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, it features several characters either from or referred to in that work: Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), Billy Bones (Tom Hopper) and, of course, the man who eventually became Long John Silver (Luke Arnold).

But there are also some real-life pirates: Captain Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), “Calico Jack” Rackham (Toby Schmitz) and Anne Bonny (Clara Paget).

The story opens with Captain Flint & Co. running down a freighter that refuses to surrender to them. They are forced to board the ship, which happens to contain the young John Silver. During the attack, Silver catches the cook ripping a page from the captain’s journal. Silver steals the page from the cook. When the fighting is over and Flint’s triumphant crew finds him, he pretends he is the cook and asks to join their crew.

Turns out Flint is in danger of a mutiny, with several of his crew members supporting a formidable opponent named Singleton. When he finds the journal with the missing page, he knows it had information they needed to find and take a hugely rich Spanish galleon. The schedule of the galleon is the page Silver has stolen.

Back in New Providence (the island we now know as Nassau), the men land to partake of the usual pirate leisure activities of drinking and whoring. The owner of the establishment (and who turns out to be the fence for the pirate’s stolen goods) is one Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), whose father started the business. Flint makes a bargain with Eleanor to help him hold on to his crew.

To tell more of the plot would really spoil it for those who haven’t watched it yet. There’s tons of rousing action, and because this is premium cable, lots of bare boob and butt scenes (though, to be fair, some of the bare butts are of the male persuasion). What’s refreshing here, though, is that both the characters AND the relationships between the characters are much more complex than you would expect.

So far, I’m loving the women characters. They are vital to the story, complex, with inner lives and goals that don’t necessarily involve men. At first, I thought Eleanor was going to be a cliché “toughie” woman character who will ultimately need rescuing. That has not been the case at all, and I like that she can be wrong sometimes as well as clever. Oh, and by the way, she’s also bisexual, which I initially thought was just an excuse to show some girl-on-girl action, but turns out both her relationships–with Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a prostitute and Charles Vane, a former lover–are vital to the story, both in terms of plot and character.

So far, Ann Bonny has been very much a peripheral character, but I expect that to change as the story progresses. She reminds me a bit of how Calamity Jane was used in the early episodes of Deadwood, as a kind of Greek chorus.

While Black Sails never devolves into parody, it is far from humorless. Silver is a delightfully rakish character, who is always having to find a way to extract himself from deep, deep doo-doo. There’s a charming bromance between Billy Bones and another crew member Gates (Mark Ryan). They are loyal to Flint but constantly appalled by what they see as risky and dangerous decisions.

The show is also deftly plotted. Only three episodes in, and several alliances have been born, broken, and reshuffled already. The themes are pretty serious, too: this is a story about characters–both male and female–seeking autonomy over their own lives, of a new society being born out of virtually nothing, and existing civilization encroaching on it.

The production is superb (it must cost a pretty penny) and, as I said, the action scenes are fantastic. It’s everything I have ever wanted in a pirate show and more.

I’ve been holding back, but Black Sails IS about pirates and I can’t help it:

Arrrrrr, mateys, I can’t wait to see more episodes!

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