Yo-ho humdrum. Who knew pirating was about as adventurous as a business meeting?
It probably says something about the deficiencies of Black Sails, the pirate series premiering 8 p.m. Saturday on Starz, that you pay more attention to why the decidedly un-scurvy lot have such perfect white teeth than whatever isn’t going on in the action department. Seriously: Nary a snaggle in the gaggle of main characters, many of whom will be familiar to fans of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
The heck with sunken treasure: Give us the name of your dentist.
Black Sails is meant as a prequel to Stevenson’s 1883 classic, telling us how John Silver (Luke Arnold) first met Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) 20 years earlier. Silver is still a biped at this point and hasn’t patented the “aarrgh” Robert Newton made famous in the Disney version of the tale. He’s also not “long” yet, but let’s not overthink that one.
Anyway, medium-size John Silver cons his way into Flint’s crew, which spends much of its time on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas holding meetings. Who’s going to do in whom, who’s going to go searching for a storied lost treasure and who won’t, whose ship will be seized for the journey and whose guns will be purloined.
New Providence is kind of like the Mall of America of its day, apparently. All the pirates bring their booty to New Providence to sell to Richard Guthrie (Sean Michael) whose day to day business is run by his daughter, Eleanor (Hannah New). Eleanor has a sexual history with ruthless pirate captain Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) but is now in love with the savvy prostitute Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy). Max is from some French-speaking island. Well, at least part of the time she is. The rest of the time, Kennedy forgets her unconvincing accent altogether. Starz should have hired Pepe Le Pew as a vocal coach.
And speaking of booty, there’s a lot of it in Black Sails because, after all, this is Starz. If these pirates aren’t using the F word, they’re F-wording like crazed rabbits. They even set up a “f–tent” when they need a break from scraping barnacles off the hull of Flint’s ship to help it sail more rapidly away from the Royal Navy as Flint and his crew go after a storied treasure.
Make that “whenever” Flint and his crew go after the treasure. They will eventually, one assumes. Starz sent four of the show’s 10 episodes for review. That means that you have to wait until at least the fifth episode for swashes to start buckling in earnest.
Black Sails isn’t entirely uninteresting, thanks to rich visuals, landlubbing though they may be, and several colorful performances from main cast members. Stephens, always one of Britain’s most reliable and capable actors, brings seamless credibility to the role of Flint. McGowan is appropriately over the top, in a quasi Jack Sparrow way, as Charles Vane, and Arnold does a very good job of balancing young John Silver’s cleverness with shades of what will become his ruthlessness in Treasure Island. The character has an intentional suggestion of similarities to Jim Hawkins in Stevenson’s classic. Hannah New is also convincing, albeit a bit too beautiful, as Eleanor Guthrie.
Among the other characters from Stevenson’s book is a youthful and hunky Billy Bones, well-played by Tom Hopper.
Starz is known for well-calibrated light entertainment. Viewers don’t expect much realism, and they don’t want to have to think too much about what they’re watching. They figure there will be sex and nudity, blood and violence. Black Sails has most of that, but there isn’t enough action in the first four episodes. If you give us a pirate series, we want to see ships going at it on the high seas.