February 2, 2014

THE SKED Pilot + 1 Review: “Black Sails”


BLACK SAILS:  Saturday 9PM on Starz

A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on BLACK SAILS:  In 1715, Nassau and the waters around it weren’t yet controlled by any government, and existed instead as the domain of independent pirates and merchants.  Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) of the Walrus is on the trail of his big score, the one that will set up him and his men so that any colonial governor will have to treat them with respect–a giant Spanish treasure ship worth millions.  But to find that vessel, he needs its itinerary, a page from a captured ship’s log which was stolen by (not yet Long) John Silver (Luke Arnold).  Meanwhile, Flint has to battle foes both on his ship and elsewhere, notably his pirate rival Captain Vane (Zach McGowan).  Flint has a business relationship with Nassau’s brothel owner Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), but neither of them know that Eleanor’s prostitute lover Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy) has her own deal with Silver, bartering the itinerary on his behalf to Vane.  At the conclusion of the pilot, Flint vanquished his on-board opponent by blaming him for the theft of the itinerary and beating him to death–but that made it even more essential that Flint get the actual itinerary in his hands.

Episode 2:  There was considerably less action and more talk in the second hour of Black Sails, written by series creators Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine and directed by Sam Miller.  Virtually all of the episode was concerned with the whereabouts of that itinerary, as Flint and his mates realized quickly that Silver had taken it and tracked him down, even as he and Max were making their deal with Vane.  In the end, Eleanor siding with Flint and Max with Vane split the two women up, and in order to save his own life, Silver had to (apparently) burn the itinerary after memorizing it, so that Flint would need to keep him safe in order to find the treasure ship.

This was all handled fairly nimbly, but fans of Pirates of the Caribbean and even of older classic pirate movies like Captain Blood might be disappointed in the comparative humorlessness of Black Sails, as well as the fact that with the pilot budget spent, there was little spectacle to be had in the hour.  It’s still unclear whether these characters have enough depth that we’ll be interested in following them as they scheme against each other for 8 hours this season; the show’s grand theme, the coming civilization and colonization of the Caribbean, is so far not particularly thrilling.

The show’s physical production is handsome, and the actors are mostly strong, especially Stephens and McGowan (virtually unrecognizable from Shameless), but New seems too–well, let’s call it modern-day, and Arnold is very callow.  The show, based on its early going, is moderately engaging, but nothing yet suggests the kind of gripping narrative and imagination that animates the best HBO and Showtime series.

Starz did some creative counting of viewers for episode 1 of Black Sails, adding together days and platforms while avoiding specific 18-49 numbers for its initial airing.  It’s hard to avoid the implication that the core ratings were less than impressive.  Perhaps more importantly for a paycable network, the series doesn’t seem to have sparked much excitement or buzz.  None of that matters in the short term, since Black Sails was renewed for Season 2 before the first episode had even aired, but Starz has a habit of renewing shows that are lame ducks by the time their second seasons begin, and this one may be no exception.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."