Created by Jonathan E. Steinberg & Robert Levine
Starring Toby Stephens, Hannah New, Luke Arnold, Jessica Parker Kennedy, Tom Hopper, & Zach McGowan
It’s kind of like Pirates of the Caribbean, except no magic, true love, or cartoonish pirates, and a lot more blood, backstabbing, and sex. Especially sex. Actually, it’s not like Pirates of the Caribbean at all.
In the Caribbean Sea in the early 1700s, pirates raided the Spanish and the English while making a free life for themselves. They drank, they slept around, they sang… actually no singing here. No parrots either, or hooks or treasure maps or monsters or courageous kids saving the day. No, Black Sails takes the popular pirate genre and cuts out the fluff and whimsy to focus on a gritty tale of a criminal underworld trying to stay alive. Also sex. Lots of sex. It’s possibly historically accurate, but it’s also a Starz show, so that’s just what you’re getting into.
The pirates of this show aren’t swashbuckling heroes. They’re desperate men (and women) trying to carve out a life for themselves on their own terms. This rebellious independence brings these characters together and also leads to their fighting. Everyone is strong-willed and won’t let each other stand in the way of their dreams, be it a woman wanting to run her father’s empire, a prostitute wanting freedom, or a captain wanting to make his own country.
The series takes its characters from both historical fact and fiction, with real pirates like Charles Vane and Anne Bonny butting heads against pirates right out of the book Treasure Island, such as Captain Flint and John Silver. First off, I absolutely love that this series makes John Silver a cook, and it’s even better in that it’s not hammed up with a wink and a nudge since we’re all smart enough to get the restaurant reference. Secondly, you don’t need to know anything about real history or the book to enjoy the show. It crafts its own story and fleshes out the characters enough in its own right to stand on its own.
These characters are fleshed out through the pursuit of their ambitions, and their relationships are shaped as those ambitions go from conflicting to aligning with one another and back again. It is a long burn though, and it may be well into the eight episodes of this first season before you gravitate towards the characters or the plot lines you want to invest in. I found myself wondering early on who I should be rooting for, who do I want to follow along with to a fulfilling end.
If the characters don’t grab you right off the bat, the setting might though. The production crew outdid themselves with incredible ship designs, fantastically dirty and gritty costuming and make up, and creating a vivid sense of actually being on the sea (without actually being on it). If anything, they weren’t on the water enough, with much of the story taking place in the well-populated Nassau port. It makes sense for budget, but for a pirate show, I want more sea time and more tropical island time.
I was on the edge of whether or not this show is fun or forgettable, but I found myself eventually captured by the story, particularly of the separate quests of Captain Flint and Charles Vane. By the end of the first season, the scene is set for some very intriguing possibilities. If the show continues to buck history and forge its own path like its pirates would do, then I would expect some exciting things from season two.
The Video and Audio
The series is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround sound. The video is sharp and colors really pop, showing the great detail that the costumers and set designers put into their work.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The three-disc set comes in a black fold-out case, adorned with portrait shots of several of the main characters, kept in a cardboard sleeve with holographic front. The fold-out case looks nice, but it’s more trouble than it’s worth since the discs are difficult to retrieve with very little exposure to grab from.
The extras are only a series of short featurettes about the making of the series, with some short interview bits. I found the one about building the boats to be the most interesting, but there’s enough variety for everyone to find something they like.
Noticeably missing were any commentary tracks, which I looked forward to so I could hear more about filming on those great sets and the work that went into them. Also missing is Michael Bay. For a series whose main tag line is “From Executive Producer Michael Bay,” and who mentions him almost ad nauseam in the behind-the-scenes, there’s not an image or peep from the man himself. It leads one to believe he’s less involved than the marketing suggests, although I’m not really surprised.
Overall (Not an Average)
If you’re hankering for more pirates in your life, this first season of Black Sails will wet your appetite while tempting you with a full booty of treasure in later seasons. This first season is decent, if not lacking in some areas. Here’s hoping season two can satisfy, or else it may walk the plank.