Review – “Black Sails” Pilot Episode
Spoiler Warning – Few things are a tragic as a spoiler. Popping someone’s delightful balloon of anticipation by exposing the important details of a piece entertainment is bad. You don’t stick your finger in the wedding cake, you don’t pee in the snow just outside the living room window, and certainly don’t let people know that a show called “Black Sails’ is actually a play on words referring to the origin of the Black Friday retail sales event. It was started in the Pirate age as a way to dispose of the dregs of the pirate booty on the last day of the week. Who knew?
Summary – “Black Sails” is a pirate series set in the early 1700s from the Starz network. For years the English has commissioned privateers to harass and attach Spanish ships in the new world. The kept the Spanish from fully benefitting from the riches of the new world, kept some income coming to England while they established their own foothold. But, in the early 1700’s, the English had enough of a presence to gain the benefit of colonies. But they have a problem that the area is thick with accomplished thieves of their own making. Two empires, the English and the Spanish, seek to civilize the new world and reap its bounty, but the pirates stand in their way.
The Good – Let’s talk about the good parts first. Overall I liked the look of the series. The locations – Nassau in particular – looked not only realistic but they were original enough to surprise me. The town was lush, but it wasn’t a jungle. There were ships, but no big docks. The buildings were shacks and the work took place out in the open, but shaded. This all felt right to me. I don’t need a show to be a history lesson, but getting most of the details right helps.
I also liked the set up and the early plot. The period is very interesting with the English turning on their former partners, the pirates, and calling them criminals. They created a fighting force not fully under their control to hurt an enemy and now that they no longer need them they are inconvenient. Yes, Empires have been doing that sort of short sighted thing for a long time and continue to do so today. The interplay between the English, the Spanish, the colonies, the riches of the new world, and the pirates is rich with plot potential.
The early plot involves a Spanish treasure ship and its schedule for transporting the treasure. One person has come into possession of the page but only knows that it is important, not really what it is. Another person knows what it is, but not where it is. Layer onto this a pirate captain who is losing the confidence of his crew, the traders that turn the ill-gotten gains into money, and the teeming underclass of morally weak yet ambitions people looking to make their way in the new world. I really like the potential.
The Bad – The first thing that struck me was a couple of the actors were completely unbelievable. The daughter of the merchant seemed like she wandered in from the set of a CW series and didn’t realize she was in the wrong spot. She did not seem either tough or smart enough to be in the position she was in. Secondly, the “John Silver” character was in a similar position – a modern person who appeared on a ship and muddles his way through the lines. Lastly, there is a character, a roguish opportunist, who looks like he is from and 80’s keyboard band. It’s really distracting.
This being a Starz series, there is nudity and sex. Handling these aspects is critical. In the pilot, they sucked. The two sexy scenes didn’t make sense. First, a captive joins the pirates and the initiation involves the pirates putting him in a room with five women. I doubt pirate initiations were quite that enjoyable. Secondly, there is girl on girl scene that just popped in out of the blue. It has the potential to add quite a bit to character depth over time, but in the pilot it really felt cheesy.
The Other –Any pilot is a crap shoot. They have to show enough characters, plot and features to get the audience interested yet still tell a story that satisfies. This series suffers from a Game of Thrones number of characters all who only get a few minutes to be on screen.
The writers/producers have made the curious choice of choosing a mix of characters from the classic book “Treasure Island” and historical characters. In the pilot I was playing the game of “guess who will pop up next”. This pilot felt a bit like pirate fan-fiction. I hope it gets better.
Final Verdict – The pilot was good enough for me to pencil in two more episodes. The acting was disappointing, but that can get better. The plot potential and the setting are interesting enough for me to give this series some more of my time.