John Malkovich as Blackbeard the Pirate? Arrgh, sign me up, right? Alas, not so fast with “Crossbones,” a summer series that it feels like NBC has produced a couple of times before (“Crusoe,” anyone?), with beautiful crystal-blue waters and characters and situations that carry about as much weight. In a sense, Malkovich’s philosophical butcher is a logical heir to the timeslot where “Hannibal” has been dining (albeit on very small portions), but other than its lovely vistas, the early episodes suggest the ruthless villain has been thrown into the ocean in a leaky vehicle — and without a paddle.
That’s both a shame and something of a surprise, since Neil Cross (“Luther”) is at the helm, although the premise essentially establishes Blackbeard (who prefers to be known as the Commodore) as a secondary player. (UPDATE: The credits have been revised to include writers James V. Hart and Amanda Welles, who share “created by” credit with Cross.)
The real star, actually, is Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle), a James Bond-like operator, circa 1729, dispatched by the governor of Jamaica (Julian Sands) to find and terminate Blackbeard — who had been presumed dead — with extreme prejudice. Masquerading as the ship’s doctor, Lowe pretty quickly encounters his prey, but discovers for a variety of reasons that he can’t seek to dispatch the pirate just yet, leaving him as a sort-of prisoner who Blackbeard (who actually sports a gray goatee) trusts more than he does most of the minions surrounding him.
As for those minions, they’re a diverse lot, true, but also a rather bland one. Blackbeard, meanwhile, pursues an ahead-of-its-time invention, the Longitude Chronometer — basically just an old-fashioned MacGuffin, to set the plot in motion — that risks thwarting his buccaneering ways, for reasons that even three episodes in remain mysterious. There’s also the distraction of an alluring woman (“Upstairs Downstairs’ ” Claire Foy) who also occupies Blackbeard’s island.
The scenery is beautiful enough, but the action sequences, while gory (with throat-slitting and whatnot), wind up feeling indifferent at best. That leaves some interesting but go-nowhere exchanges between Lowe and Blackbeard, who wax eloquent about various topics, including religion.
Malkovich has always possessed a rare gift for conveying a still sort of menace, but the series is too lifeless to capitalize on those talents.
NBC has been clever about acquiring or co-financing such properties, with enough international money in them to make them potentially viable even with modest to mediocre ratings.
Ultimately, though, a series has to deliver more than just a favorable deal. So whenthe “Crossbones” flag comes into view, it’s probably wise to high-tail it in the other direction, for all the wrong reasons.