It’s clear that Starz is still searching for an identity — not only how to distinguish itself from pay cable rivals HBO and Showtime, but how to let the world know what it is through its original series.
Gone are the Kelsey Grammer tour-de-force Boss, probably the most HBO-like of Starz’ offerings, and the ambitious and stylized Magic City, which was part Sopranos and part Mad Men, but not a series that drew enough viewers in its two seasons to merit a third.
Does that leave Starz as the channel of Spartacus — glorified homoerotic blood porn played out in swords and sandals? Because that’s not exactly the highest creative bar, but likely the kind of mixture of violence, sex and nudity that just might work best on Starz.
Ah, but where to mix in the lighter but entertainingly ambitious Da Vinci’s Demons, which is about to enter its second season in March, or the contemporary crime drama Power, or this summer’s much-anticipated Outlander series, created by Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica) from the insanely popular books by Diana Gabaldon (which have a very strong female fan base that loves the romantic nature of its Scotland-based story)? The White Queen, which was a co-production with the BBC based on the books by Philippa Gregory, may even come back as a Starz-only entity.
While that lineup is a little heavier on historical genre pieces, it’s more varied than it is cohesive and suggests that Starz is trying to be as broad as HBO in its appeal. But Starz, and to a lesser extent Showtime, have yet to solidify the same reputation for consistently high quality.
Now comes a new Michael Bay pirate series called Black Sails, set in 1715, during the “Golden Age of piracy.” Here’s a genre series that’s got a lot of what you’d expect from Starz — gratuitous nudity, bloodshed and mayhem — but it also has a complicated story to spin. What’s been interesting to watch is how Starz seems to dictate the balance in an effort not to become the “boobs-and-blood” channel. Black Sails may be an indication that it’s an ongoing effort, and finding a balance like, say, Game of Thrones has found, eventually comes back to how well the show is written.
And that’s what’s intriguing about Black Sails after watching the first four episodes. (The series has already been picked up for a second season.) The first episode delivers all the swords, blood, sex and nudity that a Starz subscriber may be seeking, but slowly, through the next three, it becomes clear that Black Sails has more ambition than merely artfully framing a lesbian sex scene or a sword fight. It has a fairly large story to tell and, even by the end of the fourth episode, is unspooling it slower and with more care than one might have imagined when considering the words “Michael Bay” and “pirates” and “Starz.”
Co-created and co-written by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine, Black Sails tells the story of Capt. Flint (Toby Stephens), who runs the Walrus ship and is the most feared captain of all those docking in lawless New Providence Island. His crew includes the quartermaster, Gates (Mark Ryan), and first mate Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), who is next in line.
Flint is after a big score — a Spanish galleon ship larded with gold that nobody can find, much less take down. But he’s found the secret hideaway — unfortunately it’s now in the hands (and later head) of the slippery John Silver (Luke Arnold), who is just trying to stay alive but causing a lot of upheaval while he does.
On New Providence Island, everything runs through Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), whose father, Richard, is the wealthiest black marketeer in the Bahamas. Her father has left her to run things on the island, and she’s the main arbiter of which pirates get which goods (she also runs a saloon). Her right-hand man and advisor is Mr. Scott (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), but Mr. Scott is rightly concerned with Eleanor’s connection to Flint and his dangerous scheme. Eleanor has a lover in Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a prostitute in town.
On the opposite side of Flint getting what he wants is his nemesis, the dangerous Captain Vane (Zach McGowan, Shameless), who runs the fast and lethal Ranger ship; Vane’s quartermaster, Rackham (Toby Schmitz), the brains behind Vane; and Anne Bonny (Clara Paget), who is both an enforcer for Vane and Rackham’s lover.
It’s quite a world that Steinberg and Levine have created. More characters show up as the episodes roll on, giving Black Sails a more dense, complicated structure (which is good).
Even after four episodes, however, it’s hard to tell what you’re getting with Black Sails. In the beginning it feels like a blood-and-sex pirates epic without much depth, but the cast is filled with solid actors and they give more heft to the initial portrayals. As Black Sails progresses, it evolves rather surprisingly into a more serious story with lots of secrets, backstory and intrigue. Again, that’s a welcome direction for a show that already knows how to swing a sword, throw a punch and linger on a naked body. But the fourth episode does move rather slowly, which makes you think the pacing might be a tad bit off for a pirate epic.
Better dense than dumb, however, and the move by Black Sails into something unexpected — better acted and better written than you might have guessed — is its own little treasure.