"Black Sails", produced by Michael Bay for Starz, is the current pirate event and, as far as I can tell, the premier TV series under the Jolly Roger (the original Treasure Island story shown as a series not included). I had quite great expectations. Furthermore, being told the series would not be seen on screen in my country for another two years, I was even more excited that "Black Sails" has crossed the Ocean that soon.
Now, having seen all eight episodes, it seems appropriate for an amateur of piracy to merge my thoughts and impressions to this quick review; there will be some spoilers, but I am eager to learn your opinion and your impression!
The Intro is a piece of art. Not necessarily it is a pure buccaneer styled clip, though the constant reference as well to 18th century's delicate ivory maritime artwork as to violence and mortality did impress me, and still impresses me with every watch. I guess the intro does set the mood and intention quite well: This series is about pirates, not a pirate series, and while some classic elements will play a role (see below), the urge for a styled, badass look and modern characteristics is obvious. Let us cut it short: The Intro is so far the best one I know, next to the Sopranos', and together with the epic soundtrack makes eager to watch the show.
The main theme won the Primetime Emmy Award. The composer Bear McCreary explains in a short YouTube video how he had experimented with "exotic" instruments unknown to most Americans, especially the Hurdy Gurdy - which is one of my favorite elements. With a small band only he managed to create an all new soundtrack which such a depth of emotion, but still containing some classic maritime tunes and the style of the Early Modern Age. Such he did by playing queer and unprofessional in some tunes, while the Hurdy Gurdy creates countless disturbing yet authentic sounds. The music is pretty amazing and did help a lot when plot and cast threatened to kill the atmosphere, I got it on my i-pod for inspiration.
3. Costumes and facilities
This part of a review is always the most complicated one, at least when I do it. Literally being a historian, historical authenticity is of highest priority for me. But in this special case, I simply did accept the fact that the series is a modern styled pseudo-historic series like the Borgia or Spartacus. The costumes are rather good, though. Many detail I like. Apparently, the people responsible for the outfits spent most time on the leading characters while the whole rest was suited rather generic; in some cases (Jack Rackham!), the costumes are too forcefully modern or " cool". In others (Hornigold, Flint), the figures are nothing but epic.
Facilities are okay. By this I mean that by today's' standards I can expect a superb looking CGI and decent run-down Caribbean settings. To be honest though, the "Assassin's Creed Black Flag" game could show of a more convincing city structure then "Black Sails"; too often we are lead to the same places over and over again, sometimes it does remind to a stage production, which is unnecessarily lazy . After Pirates of the Caribbean, we all now candlelight adds to the atmosphere, but dozens of candles everywhere? For sure that is stylish, but tries rather forcefully to copy a set of a fancy interior magazine. The Walrus is pretty cool. But why did they make THE FLAGS BLOW AGAINST THE WIND? This is a children's mistake, flags naturally wave in the same direction as the sails are bowed to; that is called "wind". The ships, simply spoken, are decent, but the Empire: Total War offers almost the same standard - yet this is a TV series with a strict budget. So, I am okay with the ships, they are good.
Neither costumes nor the most perfect setting can work without a proper cast. Again, my opinion is divided in "utterly brilliant" and "complete miscast". Toby Stephens as Captain Flint; Mark Ryan as Mr. Gates; in some ways, Zach McGowan as Charles Vane and Sean Cameron Michael as Mr. Guthrie are splendid. They look the right way, they act the right way. Some others, as the oh-so-annoying Hannah New as Miss Guthrie, Toby Schmitz as a complete ahistoric Jack Rackham or Luke Arnold as the most inappropriate, unconvincing Silver ever are nothing but a pain in the heart. The cast leaves me perplex and unsure what to say. It appears like the producers had to choose between a limited number of actors and picked the best they could.
The prequel to Stevenson's Treasure Island is roughly telling a tale of Flint and his crew gaining the riches; though, (spoilers) it turns out that the classic story is not told. No Treasure Island, no doubloons buried, no Flint dying of liquor in Savannah handing Billy Bones the famous map. In fact, Billy Bones is killed off, Black Dog or Pew are not even mentioned and Silver does keep both legs.
In my eyes, the series is amazingly mixed quality. Episodes I, IV, VII and VIII are excellent, exciting, well written and well shot. Episode II is decent, but III, V and VI utterly horrible. Apparently there have been about three different screenwriters; some episode are so full of boring talk and senseless soft porn it was a pain to watch; others are catchy from start to finish and bear badass lines and badass scenes.
While the soft porn is actually a must have in US Pay-TV, the heavy focus on the female characters make no sense; I doubt anyone has sympathy for the too modern and emancipated, arrogant and bitching Miss Guthrie. The whore Max is simply colorless and boring, while Mrs Barlow as well leaves no impression but self-sorrow and intrigue. Yet, almost four episodes do focus on Guthrie only, and even a battle is interrupted for boring soft porn and silly talk between Guthrie and Max.
But, to conclude, the plot is interesting enough to make me watch the whole series. It has some depths and character developments and the final battle, which naturally shows the Spaniards *uck the pirates up badly is a surprisingly logic, tragic confirmation of all the warnings. The series leaves Nassau Island almost in the exact situation as before, but with some grave differences. Vane is back in power, Guhtrie can continue her trade but lost most of her direct influence, Max is whore-in-chief and Flint survives and maybe can take over the grounded Urca de Lima with the crew he got left.
My expectations had been high. In many ways, they are fulfilled. It is a new attempt to make pirates look grim, cruel, real outcasts with their own rules. Refreshing enough since POTC turned into make-up carnival. The soundtrack and the screening is amazing, most actors are good to decent, and flaws are tolerable; it is a TV series after all. Unforgivable are the boring talks of highly intellectual English, the reduction to just some locations and the focus on the girls nobody had cared about in the early 18th century.
Therefore, the Chevalier gives this series six of ten Hourglasses.