'Crossbones': TV Review


Friday, May 30
10 p.m. on NBC

An adaptation of Colin Woodard's book The Republic of Pirates, the 10-episode action-adventure drama stars John Malkovich.


Blackbeard the pirate is really named Edward. That's pretty much all you need to know. Also, if you must watch a pirate series, go rent "Black Sails" from Starz. Or sit down and write your own pirate series. But just do something completely different.

There's no real good reason to watch "Crossbones" other than to figure out what John Malkovich is doing and to make it clear to yourself that "Black Sails" on Starz is a much better bet. So is "Luther." Which makes sense if you read this review.

As a fan of Luther, which is the brainchild of Neil Cross, the second thing that struck me about Crossbones was that his name was in the title and whether that was some elaborate smirk that might make a great story over a drink in a few years.

The first thing that struck me was that I was disappointed – not just in the quality of Crossbones but in why Cross (you see?) would even be interested in pirate stories, where most good writing goes to die.

Well, let’s backtrack just a moment. Black Sails on Starz is probably the best pirate series you’ll find, and Crossbones does not come close to it. I believe there will come a day when someone like, say, David Simon, will write a pirate story that will completely redefine the genre and be a thing of absolutely stunning amazement.

Until then, most pirate stories are clichés because nobody is thinking about how to redefine them. They are only thinking about how to work within the parameters of swords, blood-thirsty men, remote islands and billowing cotton clothes. They are working in a swashbuckling genre when they ought to be fleeing from it, or turning it on its head.

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And yet, as you watch Crossbones, you might realize something. It looks like fun. It looks like a bunch of actors who like to play dress up and to be someone different than themselves, are having a wonderful time being pirates. The sets are kind of silly. The costumes are kind of silly. The acting is definitely silly. The sword play is like a kind of actor’s recess. You get the sense that Cross and a whole bunch of actors and production people are putting on a play with someone else’s money and having a grand old time of it.

Unfortunately, people who will be watching Crossbones at home are not likely to be actors. So this series will look unbelievable and cheap and tossed off, as if NBC decided that this would be a real spectacle, a la Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, then watched the pilot and said, “Nah. Let’s run that in the summer.”

John Malkovich stars as Blackbeard, or as he’s known here, Edward – which is significantly less scary. He doesn’t even have a beard. He’s bald. And he’s really kind of emaciated. It’s like Blackbeard needs to plunder a lot more than he’s been doing. And, I mean no harm with this, Blackbeard seems a little old. Like his plundering days are well behind him. Like pirating is a lot of work and sitting on a remote island is just easier. It kind of takes the whole pirates-are-dangerous-people idea and moves it to Florida, where everybody is ready to go to the Iron Skillet at 5 p.m. for dinner.

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Not that Malkovich is not magnetic. He is always magnetic. If you decide to watch Crossbones, and I am not actually endorsing that idea, it should be for him. He’s got a really strange accent that sucks about 25 minutes out of the pilot as you try to figure out what he’s doing. But he’s also good. Duh – he’s always good. It’s like Cross decided he needed another strong central character (like Idris Elba in Luther) and realized that the material was so, um, wanting, and that someone absolutely majestic was needed so he called Malkovich and got a yes.

In my mind, I see Malkovich saying, “Blackbeard – I’ve never done that. I’m in.” And then he reads the script at home and says, “Well, I need to do something to distract people from the fact that this is really pedestrian so I’ll come up with this weird accent.”

If you’re thinking, “Hey, you’re not really convincing me to watch this,” you’re right. Crossbones is not very good. It’s not nearly as good as Black Sails. But Cross and Malkovich deserve at least an hour of your time. If you can make it through the first episode, well, you get honorary pirate status. If you don’t make it through, just go rent Luther and Being John Malkovich

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine