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Wednesday, December 24, 2014


It starts off just as you might expect, perhaps just as you want it to, with a bloody, brutal attack on an unsuspecting merchant vessel by screaming, war-faced, sword-slinging pirates who seem to have just come flying out of the gates of hell.

But for anyone waiting for this series to settle into an extended version of a "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, BLACK SAILS: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (from Starz! and Anchor Bay Entertainment) will confound their expectations by choosing instead to show us the (more or less) realistic everyday lives of pirates who care less for boys' adventure exploits than they do the bottom line. For them, piracy is a business complete with all the behind-the-scenes struggles for power and devious schemes to one-up the competition.

As such, much of the series takes place between voyages upon the dry land of 17th-century Nassau in the Bahamas, where Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) fences the stolen booty and, as per family tradition, pretty much runs the place as did Tina Turner's "Auntie Entity" in MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME. The pirates, meanwhile, drop their "Arr, matey" guises here and worry about the next profit-generating enterprise while deciding whether or not to elect a new captain.

The latter is currently the main concern of Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) of the pirate ship The Walrus, a tough but mysterious sea dog who is losing the trust of his crew by showing signs of a hidden agenda which threatens to lead them to ruin.

While motivating his mutiny-prone crew with a lofty new scheme to locate a wrecked Spanish galleon called the Urca de Lima, which is said to contain a huge fortune in gold, Flint gradually alienates his trusted second-in-command Gates (Mark Ryan, THE PRESTIGE, CHARLIE'S ANGELS) when evidence emerges that the captain's real motives involve a Puritan woman named Miranda Barlow (Louise Barnes in a fetching performance) with whom Flint shares dark secrets.

While the rift grows between Flint and his men, melodramatic machinations churn like a primetime soap opera amongst the denizens of Nassau's pirate island New Providence, with volatile rival Captain Vale (Zach McGowan, TERMINATOR SALVATION) and his cunning toady Rackham (Toby Schmitz) aiming to unseat Eleanor as the island's chief power whatever the cost.

Vale turns out to be one of the series' most interesting and unpredictable characters, his storyline adding zest when all the other dramatic complications vying for our attention threaten to bog things down.

Eleanor faces further conflict with both her own father Richard Guthrie (Sean Cameron Michael) and a former lover, exotic prostitute Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), whose betrayal by Eleanor turns her into a dangerous enemy when she eventually joins forces with Vale and Rackham.

Behind it all, there's young John Silver, who survived that first furious attack with nothing but his quick wits and whom Flint now allows to live because he holds in his memory the key to finding the Spanish galleon Urca de Lima. How Silver not only stays alive but manages to gain status and potential for profit within his tenuous situation makes him a major player in the story.

What all of this ultimately amounts to, at first anyway, is a series that seems to take forever to get cranked up and is only occasionally enlivened by the kind of ship against ship pirate mayhem that this sort of story just naturally makes us want to see. Early episodes consist of hours of land-locked and not all that riveting exchanges about business, impending mutiny, and the inevitable romantic entanglements that never manage to achieve enough depth to really sustain interest.

Good dialogue would have helped, but it isn't really all that scintillating, either. While refreshingly adult in some ways, there are some aspects such as the jarringly crude sex scenes and artless overuse of profanity, which I found gratuitous. Way too many scenes end with someone simply saying "F*** you!", which usually means that the writers have run out of interesting ways for their characters to communicate with each other.

Fortunately, a major action setpiece on Flint's anchored vessel, which turns out to be, in its blood-splattered brutality, the antithesis of the standard swashbuckling swordfight, helps to spice things up while we're waiting for the show to finally grab us.

But only later on, around episode four or so, do things begin to heat up when the various dramatic threads finally weave themselves together in compelling fashion and begin to pay off big time, while that slow, teasing build-up to action suddenly erupts into a gloriously spectacular sea battle (especially for a television production) between The Walrus and another ship in order to steal its cannons. Even here, the growing conflicts between Flint, Gates, and the rest of the crew continue toward an ultimate breaking point.

After this, BLACK SAILS gains a watchability that carries it over even the less-than-thrilling stretches as our interest in both Flint's adventures and Eleanor's struggle to keep the island from falling into Captain Vale's hands grows more intense. Even the melodramatic stuff that I considered mere filler before starts heating up in ways that make it all compelling, while the characters I thought little of before gradually get more and more interesting.

This includes real-life (though highly fictionalized) figures Vale, Rackham, scrappy female pirate Anne Bonny, and perhaps a few others I'm yet unaware of, along with literary characters such as John Silver and Billy Bones from Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island."

The show makes an admirable attempt to lend an everyday realism to the world of the pirate as opposed to what we're used to seeing--peg-legged scoundrels with parrots on their shoulders spouting lines like "Avast ye!" and "Yo ho ho!"--although too often certain characters are overly modernized, which tends to make them both bland and anachronistic.

As for star Toby Stephens, he has grizzled nicely since DIE ANOTHER DAY and looks the part of a seething, scheming pirate captain who's more interested in the bottom line than the next swashbuckling adventure. He holds the screen well during his scenes and is an interesting protagonist although he sometimes underplays the part.

The production design is attractive and fairly convincing, save for the occasional fake-CGI shot and the sort of annoying Shaky-Cam that simply wobbles continuously for no apparent reason.

The 3-disc Blu-ray set from Anchor Bay Entertainment is in 1.78:1 widescreen with English Dolby TrueHD 7.1 sound and subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. Disc three contains the following bonus featurettes:

Black Sails: A Look Inside
Dress To Kill
Pirate Camp
Folklore Is Finished: Pirate Politics
A Place In History
Building The Behemoth

The final battle of the season is a real blowout while it lasts, nicely conveying a sense of disorienting chaos and mounting peril as enemy cannons blast Flint's ship (and much of its crew) to smithereens. It's intense and cathartic after such a long build-up, yet so brief that it leaves us wanting more just as the season nears its end. So I was left more or less eager to see season two but not really chomping at the bit as much as I should be. So far, BLACK SAILS: SEASON ONE isn't quite "must-see" TV--at this point, it's more like "might-see."

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Mr. Xploit, Esquire said...

Nice blog, I do similarly themed stuff at mine. Been meaning to catch up on Starz shows.

Porfle Popnecker said...

Thanks! You have a great blog which I recommend to anyone reading this.

Mr. Xploit, Esquire said...

Thanks buddy. Yeah, from what I've seen it's an entertaining show, but it ain't no HBO fantasy.