March 16, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Black Sails”


Once again, Starz has had to stand by and watch as other cable networks, not just its paycable competition HBO and Showtime, but smaller players like BBCAmerica and Sundance–and now even streaming services–get the original programming glory and attention it’s repeatedly tried to capture.  Despite an instant Season 2 renewal (standard practice for Starz), BLACK SAILS has made barely a ripple in the zeitgeist, neither scoring more than minimal ratings nor creating any discernible buzz.  In this it’s followed Boss, Magic City, The White Queen, DaVinci’s Demons and Dancing On the Edge as Starz strikeouts.

On paper, Black Sails sounded like one of the network’s more promising efforts:  a pirate saga produced by action-meister Michael Bay.  There was little of Bay’s technocratic wizardry in the series itself, though, which almost immediately became mired in the complications of scheme and counter-scheme in 1715 Nassau, built around characters that were, for the most part, unappealing and uncharismatic.

The season finale, written by series creators Robert Levine and Jonathan E. Steinberg, and directed by T.J. Scott, brought us finally, in its final shots, to the goal that had been talked about for most of its 8 hours:  our first sight of the Urca de Lima, the Spanish treasure ship that was the goal of our theoretical hero, Captain James Flint (Toby Stephens).  The Urca, however, like Flint’s own ship the Walrus, was beached, and that describes most of Black Sails as well, which provided nautical action in only a few of its episodes, and even then in situations that were usually incidental to what was supposed to be the main storyline.

The fact that most of Black Sails took place on dry land wasn’t necessarily a fatal flaw–it’s not as though every episode of The Sopranos featured shootouts.  If the plotting and characters had been engaging, the naval battles would have been merely a featured attraction.  But Levine and Steinberg created few characters one wanted to spend time with.  Flint himself was almost entirely grim and unsympathetic, murdering the more likable characters who stood in his way (in the finale it was his mostly loyal second-in-command Mr. Gates) for his somewhat abstract goal of stealing some of the Spanish gold in order to preserve Nassau as an independent pirate republic, safe from takeover from European empires.  Stephens was unable to suggest an emotional life for the character, and he wasn’t helped by the fact that Flint didn’t seem to care about anyone, not even his always-enigmatic perhaps-mistress Mrs. Barlow (Louise Barnes), who was mostly notable for her incredibly complicated backstory.

Even worse was not-yet-Long John Silver (Luke Arnold), who was apparently meant to be a charming rogue (he parlayed his theft of the precious document that contained the Urca’s destination into a place on the Walrus), but who came off merely as a nasty hustler and parasite, whom no one wanted to see survive his almost-death of the week.  Back in Nassau, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), who struggled to escape her father’s domination and establish her own financial control of the town, was probably as close as the show came to having a center, and Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz) was at least rakish, although his character was barely developed.  There wasn’t enough of Captain Vane (Zach McGowan), Flint’s rival, whose goals were clear and who seemed in all respects a better alternative to the show’s protagonist.

Black Sails had endless expository conversations, but the ever-shifting loyalties of the mostly unsympathetic characters were often unclear anyway.  (A critical letter written by Mrs. Barlow–who is supposed to be on Flint’s side–that said Flint would betray his crew is still a mystery.)  The infrequent action sequences were reasonably exciting (although it was almost always obvious that they were staged in tanks), but rarely dramatically involving.

The series has another season to try and find a more compelling way of telling its stories.  However, the fact that the action will start with both of the key ships going nowhere makes it hard to get one’s hopes up.  As for Starz, it’s taking two more big shots this summer, with yet another historical saga in Outlander, and Power, a 50 Cent-produced tale of a drug kingpen turned nightclub owner, which will at least be something different.  With 22 million subscribers, eventually it has to find something its viewers actually want to watch.


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."