Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead!
Since the late nineties, some of the best original programming on TV has been produced by premium cable channels, and while the two biggest names in the game remain Showtime and HBO, Starz has been actively trying to prove its a contender who deserves to be noticed. To this effect, Starz now gives us BLACK SAILS, a swashbuckling adventure that serves as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s TREASURE ISLAND. The show focuses on Captain Flint and his crew, who are one of several pirate crews using New Providence island as a base of operations, and their quest to find a Spanish ship reputed to be carrying roughly five million dollars in silver.
The show opens with Captain Flint’s ship, Walrus, bearing down on a merchant vessel with intent to raid. On board said doomed ship we find a plucky young John Silver, who would much rather save his own skin than fight a group of bloodthirsty pirates. Through a stroke of luck he finds himself in possession of a much desired document, and fibs his way into Captain Flint’s crew by claiming to be a cook. Flint is having problems controlling his men, as the hauls have been lean since he is searching for information about the loaded Spanish ship rather than pursuing wealthier merchant ships, and, understandably, his crew is dissatisfied at their lack of success, although they don’t know the reason for it. Once Walrus returns to New Providence island, Silver begins to get his bearings and starts planning to sell his ill begotten document for profit, Flint takes off to see his fence and superior, Richard Guthrie, to persuade him to help him find the Spanish ship, and Flint’s right hand man, Gates, takes a loan from Guthrie’s daughter, Eleanor, to try and buy off members of Flint’s crew to prevent him from being deposed. With so many goings on some things will clearly not go as planned, and the resulting chaos introduces the audience to the important movers and shakers in this buccaneer world.
BLACK SAILS is the creation of Robert Levine and Jonathan E. Steinberg, who both previously worked on HUMAN TARGET for Fox. While these gentleman have experience, I don’t see anything in their back catalogues that would make me think they were the best bet for a hit series, which makes Starz’ decision to take a risk on them a little surprising, and the first episode doesn’t do a great deal to assuage my concerns. While BLACK SAILS has an interesting premise, particularly for fans of pirate fantasy as it utilizes well know characters from famous fiction, it doesn’t do the best job of hooking you. While you get a sense for who the long term protagonist and antagonists are going to be, much of the conflict between them is behind the scenes and involves intermediaries, so its hard to be invested in either one or to pick sides at this point. On the plus side, the production is beautiful, boasting gorgeous locations, authentic looking sets and dwellings, and amazing costumes. The only thing I would like to see more of is the ships, as most of the footage from them takes place in the holds and cabins rather than on deck, and while this may just be a feature of the first episode, it seemed strange for a show about people who make their living on tall ships. I did have one personal issue with the show, and that’s that it shied away from depictions of graphic violence, most of the fight scenes are hazy, and the ones that aren’t have the most graphic blows off camera. Now, I’m not someone who has to have graphic violence to enjoy something, but one of the benefits of premium cable channel’s content is that it doesn’t have to follow censorship rules and can show more realistic content; as such, I feel that violence should be handled realistically, particularly in a show about people who use violence as a means of making a living, rather than be watered down. If someone gets stabbed, they bleed profusely, why hide it?
While BLACK SAILS doesn’t boast any big names, I was pleasantly surprised by the acting prowess of the cast. Toby Stephens (TV’s VEXED) tackles the role of Captain Flint and he seems well suited for the part. He easily portrays Flint’s quiet confidence, as well as the smoldering rage that can be found just beneath the surface. While Luke Arnold (TV’s WINNERS AND LOSERS) looks nothing like how I picture John Silver, he is more than appropriate for the rascally young man they have written him as. Silver’s cunning and greed seem like natural parts of Arnold, and his expressive eyes do a great job of portraying the thoughts dancing behind them. I was most impressed by Hannah New (soon to be in MALEFICENT) who fills the role of Eleanor Guthrie. She brings a fire to the screen and easily dominates every scene she is in; I’m looking forward to seeing more of her work in the future. Mark Ryan (THE PRESTIGE) plays Gates, Captain Flint’s quartermaster and right hand man, and he is quite memorable in the role, handling it with the steady hand of a veteran actor. The role of Billy Bones is filled by Tom Hopper (TV’s MERLIN) and I found him to be a most appropriate choice. He gives Bones a sense of power and respect, but in a very straight forward manner that seems perfect for the character. Zach McGowan plays Captain Charles Vane, one of Captain Flint‘s rivals, and while I would have liked to see more of him, when he was on screen he created a cold, heartless presence that is perfect for an antagonist.
BLACK SAILS has many virtues, it has a talented cast, great production values, and an interesting premise, unfortunately it fails to hook you and some of the stylistic choices are a bit disappointing. If you are at all interested, than give the first episode a watch, because it certainly has potential, but only time will tell if this Starz series can live up to the high standards set by HBO and Showtime.
Final Score: 7 out of 10