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.