August 3, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Crossbones”


CROSSBONES, despite some hoopla when it was first announced, turned out to be a series hardly anyone wanted to watch.  Adjusting for the fact that Starz is only in 1/3 of US households, even that network’s Black Sails was ahead in the year’s piratical sweepstakes, despite Crossbones airing on NBC and featuring the series TV debut of John Malkovich.  Black Sails has been renewed for a second season (at least in part because Starz renews just about everything it airs), but despite a cliched trick ending that allowed a seemingly-dead character to stay alive for a potential Season 2, it’s enormously unlikely that Crossbones will have the same luck.

There were other similarities between the two shows beyond the basic premise.  Both were, for the most part, landlocked stories that took place on the island where the pirates holed up between voyages; both contrasted the relative freedom of pirate society with the harsh imperial rule of 18th-century England; in both, the chief pirate’s master plan involved an attack on a Spanish treasure fleet; both leaders faced challenge from pirate rules that allowed for democratic votes to install and remove their captains; both men even had shut-in mistresses.  Crossbones, though, was largely structured as a duel of wits between Blackbeard aka Edward Teach aka “The Commodore” (Malkovich) and Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle), the British secret agent sent to Teach’s island of New Providence in the guise of a surgeon.  A major problem for the series was that the relationship between the pirate and his antagonist never sparked, and until a climactic fight at the end of the season finale, the two characters didn’t even have much contact during the hour or two that preceded it.

Crossbones was meant to be super-charged by the participation of Malkovich.  Commercially, though, the actor probably waited too long for his move to TV to be an event, now that more current movie stars like Matthew McConaughey and Kevin Spacey had blazed the trail.  Malkovich’s performance was fun, but in exactly the same way that his other villains over the years have been fun, as once again he played an erudite despot, a droll man of violence.  Coyle was more effective, although his character didn’t become really interesting until late in the season, the result of a decision not to reveal his connection to James Balfour (Peter Stebbings), husband of Kate (Claire Foy), with whom Lowe was having an affair, until the last few episodes.  Kate herself started out as a character with some grit, but her role degenerated into merely being the love interest of the two men.  A subplot about a female pirate being blackmailed by one of the island whores, who was also her lover, was more confusing than anything else, and the series villain, sadistic English commander William Jagger (Julian Sands), was cartoonish, especially as he chased Blackbeard through use of the pirate’s insane ex-wife Antoinette (Lauren Shaw), who seemed to be made up to resemble Helena Bonham Carter in a Tim Burton movie.

The final two hours, aired back-to-back on a Saturday by NBC in its effort to be rid of the show, were written by series co-creator Neil Cross and directed respectively by Deran Serafian and Ciarian Donnelly, and were more action-packed than most of what preceded them, with some time at sea in the penultimate hour, and the British attack on New Providence in the second.  Nevertheless, here as throughout the series, Cross and his fellow writers seemed conflicted about whether they were presenting a realistic, emotionally complex tale of the pirate trade or an old-fashioned melodrama.

Crossbones wasn’t a terrible show (it seems fair to refer to it in the past tense, although technically it hasn’t yet been canceled), but it wasn’t good enough, and arriving after Black Sails, it didn’t even feel original.  Although it made for a change of pace from procedurals, crime and fantasy serials and soaps, ultimately it was neither engrossingly revisionist nor thrillingly swashbuckling.

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."