Black Sails premiered last Saturday night on Starz with 2.6 million viewers. Saturday night is an unusual time to broadcast a series that’s meant to be a dramatic success. Saturday night timeslots are typically reserved for previously released movies, reality TV or re-runs of shows the network is looking to burn off. Perhaps, then, the time is ripe for picking. 2.6 million viewers on a cable network means solid ratings. Plus, Black Sails was the most widely watched new series debut in the history of STARZ original programming.
The eight-episode first season of Black Sails centers on the tales of Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) and his men, and takes place twenty years prior to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island. Black Sails is executive produced by Michael Bay (Transformers, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) and his Platinum Dunes partners Brad Fuller and Andrew Form (The Purge, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). The series was created by showrunner and executive producer Jonathan Steinberg (creator Jericho, Human Target) and co-executive producer Robert Levine (Touch). Production began on the 10-episode second season at Cape Town Studios in Cape Town, South Africa in November. (Source: Starz)
Historical series like The Tudors (Showtime), Rome (HBO), and even quasi-historical Game of Thrones (HBO) have raised the bar for cable network dramas. Viewers expect more violence, more sex, and certainly more unwashed bodies. Black Sails walks the line between full-out savagery and adult topics that have been scrubbed for wider audiences. The problem with only going partway toward being an adults-only drama is that the result feels noncommittal, or more bluntly, half-assed.
For instance, Captain Flint is covered in blood after finishing off Singleton (which was a shame because that character provided much needed conflict and Anthony Bishop was great), but until that point he had shown zero signs of a temper. The new recruit, John Silver, is led by his peers to an ominous meeting with Blackbeard, who turns out to be a woman with a black merkin. Ugh. Thus ensued much footage of naked breasts, because of course there had to be several nude women in the scene; one is not enough. I actually turned to my husband and said, “They’re just trying to compete with Game of Thrones.” He agreed. I’m not against the nudity and the sex romp, but it was obviously shoehorned into the episode. Yes, he met prostitute Max there, but he could have just slipped off from his mates to indulge in a little nookie and met her then. Much more believable.
Understand, I enjoyed Black Sails. I am curious to see where the central storyline takes us. Clearly the stakes are high –life or death—but we’re still not sure why these players are involved. Why did Eleanor Guthrie want to help Captain Flint? We assumed her interest was thanks to some past romance, but after she and Max share a tumble in the sheets (another gimmick?), it’s clear she’s not interested in men. Or is she, because later Catpain Vane (who appears to have been a lion in a previous life) says he once loved her? And how will young John Silver sell that bit of the captain’s log without being gutted by said captain? And how does Captain Vane fit into all this, anyway?
Although the final sword fight was heavy-handed (literally), the moment between Captain Flint and Billy Bones showed that the writers know how to build layers into stories, bring depth to characters and speak to the dynamics of warfare.
The sets, costumes and camera work were very well done. Michael Bay is one of the executive producers, after all. The opening battle scene between two ships, for instance, was feature-film quality.
The actors’ performances were top-notch. I love it when a cast of virtual unknowns turns in a convincing portrayal. (When Game of Thrones premiered, the only two household names were Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage, maybe Lena Headey.) I especially enjoyed Toby Stephens as Captain Flint. (Flint, hard as, get it?) He brought the right amount of gravitas, with just a hair of insanity showing.
My hope for Black Sails is that the series commits to a smart, adult series without pulling punches. If you’re going for camp, stick to a broadcast network. If you want to compete with HBO, the king of adult dramas, then dig deep and pare down the storylines. Only bring out the sex antics and Carrie-like blood when the story calls for them. No one likes a show-off.