Sunday, January 26, 2014

Bad winds

Clara Paget as Anne Bonny
Pirates are alluring. There's no doubt about it. It's a recurrent theme in adventure fiction and a geek standby as notable as ninjas. Everyone likes pirates (unless you happen to be sailing the Red Sea these days.) So when Starz began advertising their new series, Black Sails, last year, a lot of people sat up and took notice.

Unlike HBO, Starz and Showtime tend to be noticed for pseudo-porn: nominally adult themes that are basically just excuses to show tits and a certain level of gratuitous gore. Spartacus is perhaps their most successful offering in that respect and no one (that I know of) watched it for the acting or the history. It was with that reluctant mindset that I sat down to give Black Sails as much of the benefit of the doubt as I possibly could. Acknowledging that most first episodes are a little rocky, it still sorely needs that benefit to get through an hour of the show and it may not be enough to convince me to watch any more.

Give it up for Z-Man

I'm a geek. I like pirates and ninjas and zombies and Martians and the whole nine yards (I'm even more fascinated by the mysterious etymology of the phrase "the whole nine yards" but that's just me.) I love Merchants and Marauders, a boardgame based on precisely the historical era presented in Black Sails (it's honestly much easier to win as a merchant, as any drug dealer will tell you; putting aside the coolness factor, would you rather try to make a living as Omar or Avon?) This is the deck I'm currently tooling around the Hearthstone beta with. Pirates. Pirates everywhere.

And I honestly appreciate the fact that the producers put in serious effort to not only draw from the most famous fictional work about pirates in the English-speaking world, Treasure Island (a book I probably read a dozen times as a kid) in Captain Flint, Billy Bones, and John Silver, but also are presenting characters based on actual people from that time in John Rackham (Calico Jack) and Anne Bonny. There is some attention to detail in plain sight. The costuming seems relatively appropriate. They clearly dropped some coin on the ship sets and the CGI-renderings of same.

Don't raise your heels when parrying

But having just finished watching the debut episode within the last hour, I can state that not a single line of the screenplay comes to memory. Not one. Nothing that anyone said ventured outside of boilerplate drama and/or blatant exposition. Even worse, the show is clearly trying to step outside the standard "heroic" dramatic structure in that Captain Flint seems to be the hero of the piece and the one that audiences should sympathize with, but when you're dealing with an entire cast of fairly self-centered people, it's more difficult to develop those attachments. Flint is kind of a cipher, just as he is in Treasure Island. He's legendary only because people say he is; just as in the show he appears to be a leader who inspires his men only because people say he is. The other potential audience attachment, John Silver (not quite "Long" yet), has an additional hurdle to overcome in that not only is he as grasping and opportunistic as anyone else, but he's also one of the more contemptible figures in Robert Louis Stevenson's work, so that anyone who is familiar with the book can pretty much instantly identify him with the concept of "schmuck."

Or if you wanna go there...

This isn't to say that there's anything unique about Black Sails' structure (regrettably.) After all, TV series casts made up of repellent or dark figures have been around since the Sopranos, at the very least. Boardwalk Empire has no trouble proceeding in that fashion. However, both of those shows also have solid writing that makes otherwise non-heroic figures into someone the audience appreciates for their intelligence and wit and unusual responses, if nothing else. Black Sails' cast presented none of that in the first episode. Indeed, the most interesting person to me was Hakeem Kae-Kazim, playing Mr. Scott (not that Mr. Scott...) because I recognized him from his notorious role as George Rutaganda in Hotel Rwanda, which will forever be burned into my brain. I recognized no one else and they did nothing to make me want to come back and see them again.

OK, admittedly, Paget's eyes are kinda fascinating
The usual caveat is attached ("it's just the first episode") but I have severe doubts (benefit gone!) that the show can become significantly less hollow soon enough for me to want to continue. I never saw Spartacus because I'm touchy about Roman history (speaking of boardgames, that one is excellent) but I tried watching Starz's Da Vinci's Demons and just couldn't get past the shallowness of the performances and the vanilla scriptwriting. By the same token, given my attachment to Westerns, I've given Hell on Wheels three seasons to try to keep me and Black Sails may be suffering under the weight of that commitment. I'm just not interested in taking the time to watch something that I'm quite confident will be completely disappointing.

I'd rather win another game of M&M


  1. Dude, you really need to start coming to the U-Con boardgaming days at the (former) Corner Brewery in Ypsi. It's a nice crowd, and an interesting cross-section of games get played. Plus, beer.

  2. Deal, Just give me a heads-up next time and I'll make real effort.