TV Review: ‘Black Sails’

Black Sails

Pay-cable pirates turns out not to be nearly as much fun as that sounds in Starz drama

After all the G- and PG-rated pirates brought to life in the Disney-ride-turned-movie era, the prospect of pay-cable buccaneers, complete with all the expected violence and debauchery that entails, sounds promising. Yet “Black Sails” never quite takes off, developing into a tired treasure hunt with indifferent casting and stock characters. Counting Michael Bay among its producers, this South Africa-lensed production might tempt adventure-seeking viewers to plunge into its crystal-blue waters, but despite some handsome aspects, the show ultimately proves as hollow as its CGI-rendered ships.

Conceived as a prequel to “Treasure Island,” The premiere opens with a big action sequence, as pirates raid a vessel for reasons known only to the ship’s captain, Flint (Toby Stephens of “Die Another Day”), and soon enough a not-yet-so-long John Silver (Luke Arnold), a resourceful survivor of the doomed craft. Like so many pirate tales, it all boils down to a document that will supposedly lead the crew toward a fabulous payday, if only they can find and decipher the clues, while squabbling factions vie to obtain them.

That the swashbucklers include women who give as good as they get — beginning with Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), who runs the island’s smuggling; and an ambitious whore named Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), who becomes part of Silver’s plan — doesn’t really provide much in the way of feminist progress in something this mindless, just as the sex and violence, alternately explicit and brutal, doesn’t do much to advance the larger story.

Indeed, once the oars begin turning, as it were, “Black Sails” becomes rather static and talky. And while there are interesting glimpses into the democratic world of piracy — where the captain has to fend off a challenge to his authority if his schemes aren’t rewarding the crew with a proper return on their pillaging — it’s more difficult to care about whether he, or anyone else, lives or dies.

By that measure, the show proves more pallid than History’s “Vikings,” despite access to the permissive palette with which this Starz production can paint, thanks to the wide-open seas of pay cable.

Conceptually speaking, “Black Sails” (co-created by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine) seems well positioned to bring home some of the escapist audience Starz corralled with “Spartacus” and its sundry permutations, what with its mix of swords, savagery and sex. The network has already ordered a second season, which would sound more impressive if the same hadn’t been done with “Magic City” and “Boss,” and if Starz wasn’t likely getting the show at a reasonable price, thanks to international booty.

In other words, as this band of marauders might testify, there’s often a difference between putting on a show of strength by flying the colors and actually bringing home the gold.

TV Review: 'Black Sails'

(Series; Starz, Sat. Jan. 25, 9 p.m.)


Filmed in South Africa by Platinum Dunes.


Executive producers, Jonathan E. Steinberg, Michael Bay, Brad Fuller, Andrew Form, Chris Symes; co-executive producers, Vlokkie Gordon, David Wicht, Michael Angeli, Doris Egan, Robert Levine; producers, Nina Heyns, Brad Caleb Kane; director, Neil Marshall; writers, Steinberg, Levine; camera, Lukas Ettlin, Jules O’Loughlin; production designer, Wolf Kroeger; music, Bear McCreary; visual effects supervisor, Erik Henry. 60 MIN.


Toby Stephens, Luke Arnold, Zach McGowan, Toby Schmitz, Hannah New, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Jessica Parker Kennedy, Mark Ryan, Clara Paget, Tom Hopper

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  1. Alaine beek says:

    hated the first episode. all too shiny, clean clothes, sparkling white teeth, beautiful skin. – credibility lost straight away. then the dialogue. terrible script, felt sorry for the actors who are probably far better than the chance they were given. Clunky editing too. I bought the blue ray for my husband for Christmas cos’ we liove Vikings but don’t know if I can bare to watch the second episode.

  2. BillNYC says:

    I like the balance of story, characters and settings this show brings. It may not be the most intelligent show and maybe there are weak elements, I don’t know. But it feels real to me. The first scene had me hooked more than the entire line of POC films which I thought were wayyyy overdone to the point where I couldn’t take them seriously even if I suspended reality. I can really get into this series though. I feel it’s the right effort and balance with results that hit the mark. I like it a lot and I have never been a fan of any Starz series.

  3. KaschK says:

    Really liked the pilot, but hope they get past Lethal Enforcer mode with Anne Bonny as that character is what made this series different for me at initial examination. I have never seen an attempt to put Anne on film. Clara looks great and fitting as Bonny but aside from being half samurai it looks like they dug up nothing else about the character in the encyclopedia and she exists only to keep people out of Vane’s face.

  4. Jimmy Lithgow says:

    Your comment about CGI galleons is interesting. Is that what they look like? Funny, then, that there are three huge galleons rearing their masts above the Cape flats, just a short distance from Cape Town’s International Airport and right next to the new Cape Town film studios. They look darned like the real thing to me.

    • Alex says:

      Yeah it’s funny bc the ships are actually real. The review is a joke. Try some research next time, Brian. The first episode was awesome. Can’t wait for the next.

  5. R says:

    Get over yourself guy… the premiere was excellent.

  6. Evan says:

    Even on Land?

    The camera shakes EVEN ON LAND??

    I take the camera away when my 2 year-old films like that!

  7. John Shea says:

    ‘Feminist progress’ in a pirate series? Oh yeah! THAT would make it a hit for sure! That and Google Glasses, which all self-respecting pirates now wear, it seems…

  8. Jax says:

    I watched the free preview online. It was very meh. OK but certainly nothing worth paying for.

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