Starz’s BLACK SAILS, a prequel to Treasure Island, opens exactly how one would expect such a show to begin – with a high-octane battle on the high seas. It’s exciting, with lots of fighting and bloodshed, explosions and combat. Basically, it kicks things off as a pay-cable pirate program should, reeling in the viewers with a flashy sequence that will hook those tuning in for just such a scene.
Because this is Starz, there is gratuitous violence and nudity. However, it’s not so much so that it distracts from the story. Instead, it’s the sort of enhancement subscribers have become accustomed to, and are typically used in the correct manner, not being a hindrance to the writing.[quote text_size=”small”]Underneath that, there are real characters and story that unfold over the hour, titled “I.,” perhaps a reference to its literary roots. Captain Flint (Toby Stephens, Vexed) is the leader of this pirate ship. His reign is threatened by a man named Singleton (Anthony Bishop, District 9) when Flint’s power seems to waver, with smaller and small hauls. Flint’s right-hand-man, Gates (Mark Ryan, The Prestige), does his best to sway opinion back the other way, but it may be too late.[/quote]
This struggle is best illustrated through the part of Billy Bones (Tom Hopper, Merlin), whose loyalty to Flint is wavering, but whom still accompanies him on a mission to see their business partner, Richard Guthrie (Sean Cameron Michael, This Life), offering protection and counsel. Billy wants to keep the faith in his superior, but because he thinks the captain has grown weak, he considers turning away. Yet, he’s noble enough to give Flint the chance to win back his authority.
BLACK SAILS is not a story of noble people, by and large, but there is a certain honor code among a number of the characters. Flint seems intelligent and has a legitimate beef against those who would make the rules. Viewers will root for him to succeed in his quest to become king of the pirates, even as that goes against the law of the land. I supposed any series starring pirates, though, must strive to make them likeable characters.
Somehow, the pirate myths have taken on an air of romanticism over the years. These were hard men, outlaws who would slit the throat of an innocent man to steal his treasure without batting an eye. But there’s also an attractive, rebellious quality, a hint that they might stand for something and are acting out for good reason. Plus, they seem to lead a life of fun, and so we cheer their accomplishments.
The character in BLACK SAILS I found hardest to like is the one with the familiar name recognition, John Silver (Luke Arnold, Winners & Losers). We know he’s a treacherous fellow with a selfish streak, someone who will earn Flint’s trust and fear. This dynamic is set up right away in “I.” for Silver, though Flint is barely aware of the younger man’s existence. It’ll be interesting to see when Silver makes his move and in what way.
The rest of the cast is packed with a variety of interesting parts. Captain Vane (Zach McGowan, Shameless) seems like the villain of the piece, at least in its first season, while the motivations of Rackham (Toby Schmitz, The Cookes), another pirate, are more murky. We have Mr. Scott (Hakeem Kae-Kizim, 24), who seems to act more important than he is, and Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New, El tiempo entre costuras), who may do the opposite.
Eleanor does feel like a stock character, the strong woman in an era that didn’t have many of those. Yet she also has a role to play that’s more than two dimensional. There are two other girls in the main cast, too, Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy, The Secret Circle) and Anny Bonny (Clara Paget, Fast & Furious 6), prostitutes with business acumen, who can be described the same way. The women in this show are not wasted or subservient when they don’t want to be, and whether they are historically accurate or not, they will be compelling parts.
There is a lack of suspense in the fates of certain characters because the story of Treasure Island takes place about twenty years after this starts, ensuring the survival of John Silver, Captain Flint, and Billy Bones. We also know this crew will eventually amass a large fortune, so their victory is guaranteed. That is, unless BLACK SAILS decides to toss out its source material and go in a completely original direction, which would be a refreshing surprise, sure to be delivered with great effect.
The challenges BLACK SAILS faces are the same as any prequel, admittedly, but the argument about being disappointed because the lack of stakes figures more prominently here than in other stories because it is such a dangerous tale. There is inherent risk to the pirate life, and we see people killed in the first hour alone. By removing any real threat to the lives of multiple main players, it waters down their story, as well as makes the other main characters more disposable, perhaps leading viewers to be less invested in those who aren’t around for Treasure Island.
Apart from these things, though, BLACK SAILS is an enjoyable and well-made show that I look forward to watching. Its characters and story are better developed than other recent Starz efforts, and the production looks terrific, using physical sets more than CGI (though there’s some of that, too), and building on a grand scale.
BLACK SAILS airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.
CHIEF TELEVISION CRITIC | Creator of and writer for It's All Been Done Radio Hour live show and podcast. A voracious reader wanting to tell stories of his own, Jerome began writing around the age of 8 and hasn’t stopped, both original works and television reviews. Lives in central Ohio. Favorite current shows include The Walking Dead, Jessica Jones, Flaked, Outlander, and Archer.