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TV Review | ‘Black Sails’ opens as a shallow swashbuckling series

Published: Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 09:02

As the opening lines of Starz’s new series “Black Sails” remind us, “most of the world is run how a pirate ship is run — the strong will lead and the weak will follow.” Unfortunately, it only took a few episodes for the drama to prove itself one of the weak — making it among the shallowest new offerings of this winter’s television season. With a confusing plot too feeble to justify its gratuitous sex and violence, “Black Sails” is likely to run aground before it reaches any kind of meaningful territory.

The new show opens in 1715, as an enemy crew is overtaking the protagonists’ ship. With canon blasts and swordfights hardly in short supply, we meet the good-natured John Silver (Luke Arnold) and his new captain Flint (Toby Stephens). Tagging along is Flint’s band of not-so-merry cohorts. Together, they provide — in the pilot episode alone — enough torture scenes, gunshots and blood-soaked deaths to fill an entire season.

The pirates dock at Nassau, Bahamas, which provides some much needed comic relief. Here at last the (slightly) less gritty aspects of seaman life come into play: they all gather at a friendly beach tavern where there are more than enough prostitutes to go around. The rest of the series rightly alternates between these two settings, not allowing the audience to grow too tired of a single decrepit ship.

On the surface, “Black Sails” has wide appeal and definite potential. Our society is unfailingly enthralled by the folklore of swashbuckling, high-seas miscreants, and the promise of bohemian nudity, booze and mile-a-minute cursing is most certainly fulfilled. It also does not hurt that the series is set in the beautifully portrayed West Indies and filmed in South Africa — frame after frame soaked in sun and sand. In fact, there is a fresh, gorgeously crafted landscape in every scene. The show’s stunning visuals may be, for some viewers, enough to keep “Black Sails” afloat past its infancy.

As dazzling images fade, however, it becomes clear that there’s not much beneath the drama’s shiny exterior. It has all the trite aspects of “Pirates of the Caribbean” but lacks the creative villains and the franchise’s pearl, Johnny Depp. Without inventive characters to latch onto, “Black Sails” does not have the power or depth to evoke any more than the briefest emotional response among viewers.

This is especially true given the expectation that each random character will be chopped in half and stabbed on deck at any given moment. The over-reliance on explosive, macho fighting could be attributed to executive producer Michael Bay of “Transformers” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (2003) fame. He is at least consistent here: “Black Sails” — if only on a shallow level — will likely entertain those who enjoy his brand of action-based graphics.

Certainly, the series offers up several tried-and-true aspects to a successful premium channel drama, all of which are reminiscent of the adult content on “Game of Thrones” (2011 — present). “Black Sails” no doubt took the bait. At times, the series circumscribes character development in favor of cheap thrills — making it seem desperate for immediate viewership. This is most painfully obvious near the end of the pilot, during which an impromptu lesbian sex scene arises out of thin air, with no preceding explanation or following acknowledgment. Like this one, many of the show’s scenes come off bewildering and out of place.

It’s hard to imagine a series with such an exciting premise ending up tediously lackluster, but lo and behold, “Black Sails” has achieved just that. With a dull script, limited originality and no semblance of emotional nuance, the show can barely carry the hour-long time block it has been allotted. Those seeking a hidden treasure among the new releases of 2014 will be better off searching elsewhere.

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