May 31, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Crossbones”


CROSSBONES:  Friday 10PM on NBC – Potential DVR Alert

Viewers of Starz’s Black Sails will find much that’s familiar in NBC’s summer pirate adventure CROSSBONES.  We’re back in the Caribbean, this time in the early 18th century, and there’s a powerful pirate king, a dangerous newcomer who saves his skin by memorizing a secret and then destroying the evidence, and a beautiful woman in charge of island trade.  With its glimpses of spurting arterial blood and almost-but-not-quite nudity, Crossbones even feels like a pay-cable series that’s been cut down to suit broadcast Standards & Practices.  But the new series is considerably faster-paced (partly perhaps because an “hour” of network television is less than 45 minutes), and has the benefit of sharper writing and much more charisma in its leading roles.

It’s hard to recall now whether John Malkovich fully becoming “John Malkovich” preceded or followed the release of Being John Malkovich, which brilliantly made a meta figure out of him.  In any case, never particularly naturalistic to begin with, he’s now as mannered as any major actor this side of Nicolas Cage, and his characters need to make room for his outsized acting.  Happily, the role of the pirate Edward Teach aka Blackbeard (he prefers to go by the simpler “Commodore,” in part because he only has a graying goatee) offers him plenty of room for his brand of menacing savoir faire, apt as he is to practice self-acupuncture, and as likely to offer a companion a gourmet meal as to slit their throat–if not both.  His main antagonist is Tom Lowe, an experienced British spy and occasional physician who’s been tasked with keeping a newfangled chronometer out of pirate hands and assassinating Blackbeard; he’s played by Richard Coyle, who was recently one of the spies on Covert Affairs, and who offers a more conventional brand of macho as counterpoint to Malkovich’s antic deadliness.  Lowe is already well on his way to an obligatory romantic triangle, but not involving Blackbeard–Kate (Claire Foy), who runs commerce in Jamaica, is married, and she may or may not be aware that her husband is faking the paralysis of his legs.

The writing on Crossbones is being run by Neil Cross (James V. Hart and Amanda Welles are also credited as “creators” and co-authors of the first episode’s script, but they seem to have been involved in an earlier incarnation of the project), which is promising because Cross is best known as the man behind the excellent cop drama Luther, an intense character study that’s also full of tense action.  The initial hour does an efficient job of setting out the major characters and the stakes–Blackbeard has something going on with the local Spaniards, prompting Lowe, who’d just successfully poisoned the pirate, to save his life so he can find out what’s happening.  There’s a certain amount of bluntly expository dialogue, most notably in a scene where Lowe has to explain to his young sidekick for the fourth time why the chronometer is important, but a complicated historical drama needs to make sure its US audience is paying attention.  As with Black Sails, there’s a minimum of piratical action, probably for budgetary reasons (after the opening sequence, the story is land-bound), however David Slade (who’s been behind the camera for several episodes of the gorgeously designed Hannibal) provides a handsome, large-scale look overall.

Friday 10PM is where NBC moored its low-priced foreign co-productions last season, and it’s an even tougher slot during the summer with no Grimm as lead-in, so Crossbones isn’t likely to find a tremendous audience.  Nevertheless, on the basis of its opening hour it’s a nicely engaging yarn, a fine diversion for the barren weeks to come of summer network TV.

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."