Black Sails: finally a pirate drama worth watching?

Review Sean Marland
7 Apr 2014 - 06:45

All 8 episodes of Black Sails are now available on Amazon Prime Instant Video in the UK. Here's what Sean made of the first episode...

When Netflix creator Ted Sarandos commissioned House Of Cards as the streaming site’s first project he used a very simple formula. Essentially he knew people liked The West Wing and Kevin Spacey, so figured a fusion of both would be a banker.

Amazon couldn't get Kevin Spacey but maybe the way people continue to lap up the increasingly bloated Pirates Of The Caribbean film franchise got them thinking.

Piracy has been a risky venture for TV bosses of late, with Sky's Treasure Island and Sinbad adaptations running aground – as it were - in recent years, yet Black Sails will probably flourish where those expensive and confused shows floundered. As a format, getting a whole series as one online lump is a winner and plenty of weaker shows than this will succeed due to their accessibility in the years to come. That’s not to say that this new pirate story is without its shortcomings, it certainly isn't, but there's enough promise here to keep viewers interested (a far easier task when the next episode arrives instantly rather than in a week’s time).

Billed as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's definitive pirating caper Treasure Island, Black Sails follows Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) and his crew of buccaneers as they hunt for a Spanish Galleon which would surely sink if there was as much gold aboard it as he claims. On the way he picks up a young and bipedal John Silver (Luke Arnold) who’s already showing the charming opportunism evident in his more famous later years.

In a world where pirates survive by selling miscellaneous stolen cargoes of tobacco, whale oil and whatever else they stumble upon to gorgeous traders like Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), old fashioned treasure is in short supply, so this ship is a bit of a game changer. If Flint is correct about the future of pirating it’s a game-changer the crew really need. “There’s a war coming,” he tells a minion. “Civilisation is coming!”

Yet before he does battle on the high seas, Flint must fight off a mutiny on his own ship and the plot arc in which one of his rivals manoeuvres for a vote of no confidence is both intriguing and a great introduction device. Suffice to say, while there are a few stereotypes lying around the deck, for the most part this opening episode does a decent job of portraying what life must have been like on a pirate ship circa 1715 and it builds to a tense and rewarding finale.

The plot is enticing enough and Toby Stephens puts in a good performance as Captain Flint but Black Sails still suffers from a few jarring elements that often come as part of the furniture with Starz productions. The show never approaches the laughable depths which Camelot plumbed a couple of years back but Eleanor Guthrie and Silver look more like Gap models than weather-beaten brigands. Listening to Guthrie swear like a rebellious finishing school pupil who's just learned a naughty word is also quite off-putting. Eye candy and strong female characters are both great, but you need to believe they could exist if they're going to punch their weight.

Maybe they got the idea from Keira Knightley’s turn in the Pirates franchise, but that character worked because we saw her develop from society girl to swashbuckler. Guthrie is far too polished for my liking, although the scene where she punched a pirate captain and gets walloped straight back was refreshing and a finely worked. It was also a cracking introduction for the menacing Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) who looks set to be Captain Flint’s nemesis – and a decent one at that. 

But it wasn't just the effing and blinding that rang hollow. Of course a bit of colourful language is to be expected in any pirate series worth its sea salt, but if the writers wanted to make sure they were being taken seriously a darker tone might have been more effective. At its best Black Sails is great fun and very watchable but there’s no chance of viewers being immersed as they are with the finest work of this genre. The frustrating thing is that they might have been.

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