Black Sails, Season 1: Episode 1 – “I.”
Written by Jonathan E. Steinberg & Robert Levine
Directed by Neil Marshall
Airs Saturday nights at 9 on Starz
Drifting into the largely unexplored waters of television shows based on pirates, Starz has set its swashbuckling seafarer, Black Sails, upon us to fill that deep void Pirates of the Caribbean left in the hearts of every person ever. As we’ve seen with certain zombie series, transitioning between film and television can be a rough process for genres. How does one make a pirate narrative fit into an arc that could potentially span several years? What about the pirate world is worth immersing viewers in it for that long? These are questions that Black Sails has to deal with and tries to address in its pilot. And while “I.” doesn’t have the flare or budget of a proper ships and swords adventure film or a world and set of characters as immediately interesting as a genre series like Game of Thrones, you could do worse with your Saturday nights than by checking in on Black Sails (and if your hunger for adventure isn’t satiated here, you can also check out Atlantis, which is still airing on BBC America’s Saturday night lineup and stars Game of Thrones alum Mark Addy).
If that seems like faint praise, it’s because it kind of is. Starz set its bar extremely high with Spartacus, and every attempt to replicate that magic has fallen drastically short (even when they put “magic” in the friggin’ title, a la Magic City). It’s not that there isn’t stuff to recommend Black Sails yet, but it shouldn’t be this hard to hook in viewers given the kind of story this is. The opening set-piece is absolutely fine and exactly what you would expect and/or want when sitting down with this pilot. Stuff gets blown up, one ship’s mast comes crashing down, swords are a-swinging and booty is claimed. We don’t know any of these characters at this point, so there isn’t much of a stake in the action going on, but it’s cool to look at. Then the title sequence kicks in, which is fantastic. I’m a sucker for these kind of details, and Bear McCreary scores what is a beautifully-shot title design with porcelain figures arranged in a pirate-themed battle. It’s simple in color palette and concept, but motion is derived almost ingeniously. From there, unfortunately, “I.” loses a lot of its thrust.
We mostly follow Flint, captain of our pirate ship, as he struggles with an impending vote to see him removed from his position. Black Sails is filmed in Cape Town, South Africa, which makes the show’s setting of New Providence Island in the early 1700’s pop with surprising authenticity. The characters who surround Flint and go about their daily pirate lives on the island, though, are less interesting as of the first hour. John Silver is the entry point character, lying his way out of being killed after the pirates commandeer the ship he’s on. However, for that kind of person who should represent the viewer’s POV, we learn very little about him or about the world of Black Sails through him. It’s mostly from the other narrative strands that our understanding of pirate politics comes. The best of those strands belongs to Gates, the one man who still believes Flint is the right person to lead this crew despite coming up short on payloads for the past few months. Mark Ryan imbues Gates with the weighty difficulty of being the man behind the man, much like Davos on Game of Thrones. Everyone else is an enigma, some more intriguing than others (RIP Singleton, the captain-that-never-was), so rather than bullet pointing them here, I’ll trace their development week-to-week in these reviews depending on who stands out.
More important than that, probably, is a simple answer to a simple question. “Will I enjoy watching this show?” That answer is largely dependent on your television preferences. Genre addicts will find a lot to chew on here. Like The Walking Dead, this is much less a show based on the genre premise and much more about a group of people within that generic world interacting with each other. So, don’t expect to see people walking the plank, boarding ships and stabbing foes all the time. The inner trappings of the politics of being a pirate are very much at the core of this episode. If that’s something that immediately turns you off, you’re best off skipping Black Sails. For those who like the pirate premise as a backdrop and can allot the time to see if the characters here can earn your interest, it might be worth sticking around for the eight-episode first season to see what the series can do with this network of allegiance-free anti-heroes. After all, unless you’re True Detective, it’s hard to come out of the gate in mid-sprint. These things take time, especially with genre series that have to build their worlds alongside their characters alongside their stories.
Black Sails will be attempting just that as it joins Da Vinci’s Demons, rounding out the entirety of all of Starz’s current original programming. That’s right. With all the cancellations, Starz has only two shows in its current lineup. The good news is that they totally complement one another, showing that Starz knows exactly what it wants to do in establishing its identity. The bad news is that Da Vinci’s Demons was in this exact position at the time of its pilot and never found a way to get all of its pieces moving in tandem by the end of its first season. There’s still untapped potential, to be sure, but both of these shows have an uphill battle ahead of themselves, not one as level as the calm sea. Black Sails has the added benefits of a flashier coating and more tangible source material in Treasure Island if it needs to fall back on something. The trick will be transcending the vacuity that Starz often gets criticized for and creating something with genuine emotional thrust. If Spartacus could do it, why can’t something else?
– Sean Colletti