Almost smooth "Sail"ing

Starz’ portrayal of pirate shenanigans a jaunty ride, despite shortcomings

“Black Sails,” the new hit show on Starz, cruised into viewers’ homes late January and has quickly become one television’s newest shows-to-watch. The pilot episode was the most popular debut on Starz since the channel’s inception, and a second season has already been announced.

But the show’s positive reception hasn’t been without its detractors. The show, already on its third episode, is just entertaining enough to keep the viewer interested — but it comes with its fair share of flaws, which nearly cause it to sink.

The world of pirates crafted by executive producer Michael Bay and show creators Jon Steinberg and Robert Levine has none of the harmless Disney delights which abounded in the much-loved “Pirates of the Caribbean” series.

Here, pirates are dirty, foul-mouthed and brutal, spitting out swears and fighting with bare, bloody fists that would have Disney quaking in its boots. The pilot episode makes it clear exactly what kind of show Bay intends the series to be — one heavy on action, and lacking in clear character development and distinct plot lines, instead devoting screen time toward the quest for hordes of “treasure.”

Intended — and that’s a generous assumption — as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s beloved “Treasure Island,” the pilot begins by showcasing an attack led by Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) on a merchant ship, followed by his relentless hunt for a captain’s log which will inch him one step closer to finding a Spanish galleon full of gold.

When his crew threatens to engage in a mutiny against him, Flint recruits the help of his first mate, Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), to quell the uprising. Meanwhile, a young sailor from the merchant ship who joins Flint’s crew (Luke Arnold) secretly hides the page from the captain’s log Flint searches for. There’s the introduction of the Royal Navy, on the prowl to find Flint, and glimpses of Flint’s enemies, other pirate captains who desire the Spanish galleon for themselves.

If that description sounded confusing, that’s because the premise of the show itself is riddled with messy plot threads which, while for the most part comprehensible in the pilot episode, prove more difficult to follow later on. In a few words: a lot happens in very short order.

And when a lot happens, especially through the use of prop gimmicks instead of character-centric action, television shows tend to lose momentum — and “Sails” is no exception.

Nevertheless, the show isn’t popular without reason. Its grittier take on pirates, in contrast with what we’ve seen in recent years, helps “Sails” remain entertaining and intriguing. The characters, thus far, are neither good nor bad, light nor dark; instead, they remain in the shadowy grays, which is always refreshing to see.

The acting is decent; Stephens plays a ruthless Flint and Mark Ryan serves as a perfect balance to Flint’s madness as his quartermaster, Gates. Both actors realize the script’s ridiculousness and gaping inconsistencies, but respectfully assume their roles by never dipping into caricature or cartoon, as Johnny Depp often did in his portrayal of Jack Sparrow.

Overall, the pilot and first few episodes of “Black Sails” warrant a viewing. Even with all its clutter and confusion, the series promises audiences a good time, adventures, and — almost — smooth sailing.


Published February 10, 2014 in Arts and Entertainment, tableau





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