January 25, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Black Sails”


BLACK SAILSSaturday 9PM on Starz – Worth A Look

The pirate action-adventure BLACK SAILS is Starz’s latest attempt to swing for the fences with ambitious original programming and finally be taken as seriously as its pay cable brethren HBO and Showtime.  This project seems intended to split the difference between Starz’s successful, but not terribly respectable, Spartacus franchise, and its loftier flops Boss and Magic City.  As with those two, Black Sails has been renewed for a second season before its premiere has even aired, so it will have plenty of time to steer a course for itself.

The series was created by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine (their only major credit before this was the short lived FOX action show Human Target), but its marquee name is Executive Producer Michael Bay.  As that name implies, there’s a fair amount of spectacle in the pilot, written by Steinberg and Levine and directed by Neil Marshall, who’s probably best known as the director of the “Blackwater” episode of Game of Thrones.  The opening sequences detail an attack by the piratical forces of Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) on a ship that, as it turns out, carries the secret to Flint’s real mission, which is to capture Spain’s greatest treasure boat, at sea with a hidden itinerary.  Flint takes the vessel, but not before the precious map has been snatched by a young man who’s about to become the new cook on Flint’s ship, and whose name happens to be John Silver (Luke Arnold).

Apart from Silver, Flint faces challenges both internal and external.  The pirate system provided for democratic election of their captains, and on his boat, the scheming mate Singleton (Anthony Bishop) intends to challenge him for leadership.  Meanwhile, his rival Captain Vane (Zach McGowan) is out to defeat him in any way possible.  On land, nearby New Providence island is run by Richard Guthrie (Sean Michael), but more importantly by his daughter Eleanor (Hannah New), who’s in charge of the local bar/brothel and also runs the crime in town.  She’s Flint’s ally, but she’s also enamored of the prostitute Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), who has her own agenda–including the seduction of John Silver (in a group-sex sequence that’s gratuitous even by pay cable standards).   There are hints in the pilot that the grander theme of Black Sails will be the end of the period when individual pirates, and not mighty governments, controlled the seas.

The Black Sails pilot has its hands full establishing all these characters and the show’s setting, and with all that and the large-scale action sequences (in addition to Flint’s attack on the boat with the treasure ship’s map, the pilot culminates in a brutal fight between Flint and Singleton), there’s only a general sense of who the characters are and who we should we rooting for.  Neither Flint nor Silver appears to be a very sympathetic lead, and the dialogue by Steinberg and Levine is mostly just functional, although less cartoonish than that in  Spartacus .  Stephens has a commanding air as Flint, while the women mostly resemble an internet fantasy of 18th century wenches.

A great deal of money and effort has clearly gone into Black Sails, and the result holds the attention without being especially memorable.  Perhaps with some time to settle into its story, the show will earn its right to fly  its skull and crossbones.


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."