Long before Disney proved their modern blockbuster viability with its Johnny Depp franchise, pirates rose to prominence as popular cinematic characters in both heroic and villainous roles. There’s just something about a character archetype that’s willing to save the girl one moment only to toss her aside the next if it means he gets more gold that makes for interesting storytelling. When a driving characteristic of your character is that they’re opportunistic to a fault, any story you want to tell about them can lead to some very interesting places (geographically and politically), and that facet is only enhanced when you start drawing in historical references like Black Sails has. For that reason, Starz’s Black Sails bursts with potential and just might enjoy the same longevity that similar recent shows about anti-heroes have (see Sons of Anarchy, Dexter, etc.).
The series starts off with its primary protagonist, Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), leading the crew of the Walrus on a raid of an unfortunate merchant ship, only to discover there’s little aboard in terms of loot, with the biggest takeaway being a new crew member, John Silver (Luke Arnold). Silver saves his skin by claiming he’s a cook and arrives on the Walrus just in time to witness a power struggle that leaves Flint with a tenuous grip and an increasingly disloyal crew. It turns out Flint has led his men on a number of fruitless raids in the recent months and the answer to why lies in a scrap of paper Silver has in his possession. What that piece of paper alludes to has the power to stir rival pirate captains (like Zach McGowan’s Captain Vane) to take bold steps and severe old alliances in the pirate town of New Providence, forcing the local master of trade, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), to abandon the business that’s kept her at the top of the food chain for so long and forge a new future for the island, all while entrusting that Captain Flint’s foolhardy crusade will yield the riches he claims. All of this is juggled rather deftly, allowing a number of tertiary characters to develop into something much more.
Black Sails is many things all at once. First and foremost, it’s an ensemble piece. Flint might be the primary protagonist, and certainly the one the audience most wants to see succeed, but the manipulative nature of Silver to do whatever’s necessary to survive and the determination of Eleanor to keep New Providence from burning to the ground make it clear that there’s no singular hero here, and that any character can rise up when given the chance. One of the most entertaining side stories is the up and down fortunes of Rackham (Toby Schmitz) and Anne Bonny (Clara Paget) who start as bit players in another pirate’s crew but quickly become two of the best characters in the show. And that’s perhaps the aspect of Black Sails most likely to ensure its survival for many seasons: the deep bench of characters.
Speaking of that deep bench, one of the most fascinating choices of Black Sails is its inclusion of real pirates from history instead of just making up characters and keeping the story contained within a fictional universe. There’s only one fictional primary pirate character and that’s Flint, but even he comes with a bit of history attached to him thanks to his being the captain of the Walrus in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (and then borrowed by many other writers for use in other pirate tales). As more and more pirates pop up, it’s fun to do a quick Google search and see exactly what that particular pirate’s history is. Even the antagonist pirate Vane was a real person, and parts of his arc in the series align to his actual deeds. Were it not for the sex, Black Sails feels like the kind of series History Channel wishes it was producing and should be producing – of course it probably would have to cut back on production values at that point.
But it’s the fact that Black Sails doesn’t skimp on production value means that allows it to play up it’s more adventurous moments instead of downplaying them or editing around them, allowing the series to develop strong political drama and swashbuckling action qualities in each episode – which goes back to my earlier point that Black Sails never shies away from trying to be more than one kind of show. Without those sea battles, however, there’s no way Black Sails would feel as legitimate as it does, and it pulls those off with such aplomb that sometimes you can’t help but marvel at the production values visible throughout the show. During those sea skirmishes (with or without cannons), Black Sails is one of the most cinematic shows on television. The quality might dip down to Saturday afternoon serial when it gets back to dialogue-heavy scenes on-shore, but the excellent visuals it produces otherwise make it all worthwhile. It also doesn’t hurt that the more dialogue-heavy moments tend to involve island politicking and thus flesh out character motivations and rivalries, making it easier to overlook some of these less visually stellar scenes.
All of that great stuff aside, Black Sails is by no means perfect, but there’s definite proof of growth as the first season goes on. The most striking example is the first episode’s almost comical insistence on nudity for the sake of reminding us that we’re watching series developed for premium cable where nudity is a calling card not an exception. Nudity pops up throughout the series, but it’s often more functional than it is gratuitous once you get past the pilot episode; it’s as if they shoved 3-4 moments of nudity into the pilot purely for the sake of hooking viewers who might have been watching for no other reason. Past that, you get sex scenes (after all, one of the pirates’s preferred work motivators is the fuck tent) but they feel much more germane to character arcs and less like obligatory moments thrown in to meet a quota.
Black Sails had an exceptional but imperfect first season, but its concept and its high production values mean it’ll likely get even better as the writing continues to hone in on its best elements. Black Sails deserves your attention, give it a shot.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
Clearly Anchor Bay is proud of Black Sails' production values (as they should be – even if I think I’ve now talked about them too much), and so the extras dive almost explicitly into those waters by exploring costumes, locations, the ships, and then production featurettes on the show’s politics, pirate history, and general filming.
Finally, the Blu-ray pack also includes an Ultraviolet digital copy of the season.
"Black Sails: The Complete First Season" is on sale January 6, 2015 and is rated tv-ma. Adventure, Drama. Directed by Neil Marshall, Steve Boyum. Written by Robert Levine, Jonathan E. Steinberg, Robert Louis Stevenson. Starring Luke Arnold, Toby Schmitz, Toby Stephens, Jessica Parker Kennedy.