BLACK SAILS [S1E1]
Aired: January 25, 2014
Produced By: Michael Bay
Directed By: Neil Marshall
Starring: Toby Stephens, Hannah New, Luke Arnold
Score: 4/9 Hammers
I was wondering what Hollywood Metal encompasses in terms of content. We can certainly do fantasy, which involves power metal, comics, and film but what of other things? What about other speculative fiction such as science, adventure, and period fiction? This question was broached after watching the first episode of Starz new series Black Sails, a historical drama centered around the exploits of fictional buccaneers. Are pirates epic? Could this fit in with other fantasy-esque shows? Could I batten down the hatches?
Black Sails follows in suit with the success of other mature fantasy series like Game of Thrones, Deadwood, Rome, Battlestar Galactica, and The Walking Dead. This is important to state because Black Sails very much wants to slide in and disappear among the high profile television series. Why not? It is important to realize that at this moment, television series are receiving as much, if not more, attention and critical praise than film. This fact is currently shifting ground and redefining the concept of television and its limits for a new audience. Perhaps in a golden age of television we can finally see not the movers, not shakers, but the followers who are quickly catching on to the freedom of an old format.
Black Sails takes place during the Golden Age of Piracy, which roughly covered more than 50 years of colonial expansion. Black Sails interestingly, is situated in the later years directly following the War of Spanish Succession. The conflict, which was fought over the succession of the Spanish throne, left thousands of military men relieved of duty and resulted in a boom of brawny bored ex-military sailors. This short window of American and European history is fertile for interesting stories that mirror westerns and the idea of a frontier lifestyle. Out beyond the breakers of civilization lies the maritime expanse, with a myriad of interesting relationships to be forged. I just hope someday someone makes a decent television show about it.
One of the leads in our story is Captain Flint, who was the protagonist in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Black Sails has been designed to act as a prequel to the events that take place on Treasure Island. This is further extrapolated with the introduction of Long John Silver, now just John Silver, sneaking his way onto Flint’s boat following a pirate takeover. I feel that both of these characters would be interesting enough to follow but we are not even close to being done. Along with a heavy dose of adult content, Black Sails attempts to shove every imaginable hook within its first episode that one has trouble keeping track of which cleanly shaven, white toothed pirate is who and why there is a need to care about any of them.
Along with the playful mix of fantasy and reality, Black Sails takes a heavy cue from shows like Game of thrones and tries to interject statecraft and deep politics within the storyline. Flint balances professional relationships while facing a political challenge from an upstart named Singleton. Flint also maneuvers around the likes of a supposedly strong Eleanor Guthrie, who is the acting business owner for a powerful importing service. We also have the Royal Navy, which is closing in on catching Flint and his less than favorable deeds. Add to this a prostitute who has won the heart of Silver, with these two embroiled in a scheme that involves a stolen page from a sought after book. To continue, we have Flint’s loyal first mate Billy Bones securing votes for the upcoming, and surprisingly civil, vote for new captain. Then there is the lesbian love interest between Guthrie and the prostitute. I also can’t forget to mention, we have a savage bounty hunter, a chaotic neutral character modeled after Littlefinger, an unsure quartermaster, someone who is shot in the shoulder, and a girl pirate who looks like an anime character. Oh wait, I forgot about the best part. All of these people are involved in a larger story to find… wait for it… a giant treasure ship.
At this point, one has to ask themselves which is better for the story — pulp or realism. The pulp style, seen in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, sport characters that have little dimension beyond roles of entertainment. This is fine because the quality of pulp comes from familiarity in the story and ultimate escapism. On the other hand, realism allows for character depth and narratives that transcend cheap thrills. Both are fine when committed to. Black Sails has chosen realism, yet their true heart lies in pulp. While they make a fine start establishing literary characters in a real life setting, the story soon turns into them chasing after a floating treasure island while finding needless ways to show nudity.
I brought up Game of Thrones because I believe this, while not the first, is one of the more successful templates now being followed by other producers. There has been a visible market for adult fantasy with both historic and speculative underpinnings. Black Sails, at least in its first episode, tries way too hard to establish itself as cut from the same clothe, which ultimately makes each of its billion storylines less interesting. I am well aware that my opinion could change given more time spent with a boarding house full of characters. Brendan, our editor, is already in love with the series midway through. I might join him if I can find a sturdy place to sail through this series. Perhaps given a large enough timeline and weeks spent at sea, this show can sail to the level of the other shows it is desperately trying to imitate.