Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Arr Matey! Raise the Black Sails! by Thomas Tan

Full Disclosure: I am a huge fan of all things swashbuckley and have a deep fondness for pirate lore. I’m also a semi-professional stuntman and fight choreographer, so my perspective on the show is not solely from an audience member.

Straight off the bat, comparisons of the new Starz original series Black Sails to HBO’s Game of Thrones will be inevitable. And it would be easier to dismiss those comparisons if Starz didn’t seem determined to one-up HBO at every turn. More violence, more nudity, more political intrigue and backstabbing; it’s almost like a color-by-numbers example of a modern cable action show. Not to say that this pirate adventure isn’t well done, it has incredible production value and fantastic performances by all members of the cast. I suppose I just wish that it didn’t seem so derivative of past shows on Starz or HBO.

We’re quickly brought up to speed on our set of protagonists, all of them flawed or ruthless in some way (it is a show about pirates, after all), but with just enough social charisma or moral integrity that we can still root for them. Captain Flint, the once successful privateer, hasn’t had a large haul in months, but still maintains democracy on his ship in the face of possible ousting. The young John Silver wants nothing more than to survive and perhaps secure a future for himself, even if it means a little deceit here and there. There are sassy wenches and desperate privateers, and the twisted web of social and economic relationships is laid out quite clearly in the first 30 minutes. Everyone has something they want, and all are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals. Like any good drama, no one knows what the others are scheming, and the plot starts to snowball from there. The characters are interesting and the actors all deliver with their respective roles, leaving me definitively invested in the story and what happens next. I must admit that it was a bit slow-paced for me, with all the introductions to be made about the characters and their history together, and not a lot of action to break up the dialogue. Still, I was sold by the end of it, even if it did feel about predictable on how everything played out.

As for the “fun” parts, there was both more and less of what I was expecting from a Game of Thrones follow-up. It’s clear that Starz wanted to push the envelope wherever they could, so expect bloodier battles and more raunchy sex scenes than you’ve probably ever seen on television. The stunts and fights are impressive; I’m glad they spent the time and money needed to sell adventure on the high seas, but I still wish there was just more of it. Obviously, the series can’t be judged solely by the first episode, but Black Sails left me wanting more in a disappointing way. As interesting as the characters are, I didn’t feel like there was as much holding my interest as when the swords were out. Maybe the writing isn’t quite strong enough to balance it out, maybe the action scenes were just too brief; either way, it wasn’t really a satisfying first episode.

To re-iterate, I’m not saying that Black Sails is a bad show (from what I can tell by the pilot). On the contrary, I feel that it will turn out to be a very good show with a lackluster beginning. But with that established, I’m not sure it will turn out to be the cultural phenomenon that Game of Thrones was. In the vague area between mildly entertaining and absolutely amazing, Black Sails is a show that I will do my best to keep up with, but not quite a show I’m going to change my schedule around for.

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