I remember when I was growing up that television shows were always secondary to film, that it was often the place actors go to die or those who will never hit it on the big screen. Television was dominated by soaps and sitcoms. Oh how times have changed. We are living in the Golden Age of television for the past decade or so with shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men and Breaking Bad hitting insane levels of appraisal and ratings. But with all that television to consume, some shows inventively fall under the cracks, which is a shame because there are some quality programs out there and I’m going to tell you about one right now.
Black Sails, in case you didn’t know, is a high seas pirate show, only without the camp or fantastical elements one has come to expect from anything pirate. Their history has become muddled with stereotypes, inaccuracies and cartoonish antics in cinema, changing our perception of what they really were. In Sails, we get to witness a show that is both firmly placed in history as well as being given the opportunity to weave it’s own fictitious tale. You will find no parrots, planks or “arrrs” here. Instead you will witness the political turmoil and treachery that has poisoned Nassau, a former English colony that has been overtaken by pirates who desire to be self governed and free of English rule.
The interesting aspect is that the show is both a historical account of 18th century piracy, including the likes of Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, inventor of the infamous skull and cross bones and Anne Bonny as well as being a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island. The show’s lead is in fact the legendary Captain Flint, whose treasure is the MacGuffin of the novel and is himself a man of great mystery and wild ambitions. Accompanying him of course is the conniving John Silver (played magnificently by Luke Arnold) and Billy Bones. Rounding up the cast are characters created for the show, including Eleanor Guthrie, an ambitious fence with plans for Nassau and Max, a French prostitute who seeks power through information. As historical events unravel around them, each interested party member will take drastic measures to ensure their claim to the gold, whether it be for the good of the island, themselves or for far reaching political goals. I don’t want to give much away but in short, the show features a complex plot with multiple point of view characters that intertwine with each other at some point or another, allowing for shaking alliances and cruel betrayals.
I will admit, the first season of Sails is a bit slow. But like Breaking Bad before it, is absolutely essential to the overall experience. And once that ball gets rolling, what a thrill it is. I love a show that knows what it’s going to do two or three seasons ahead of time, allowing certain characters to play the “long con” or to hold onto a card for a long time before the big revelation, the build up actually gets revealed for the audience to see. This also allows for a great reason to rewatch the show, something I did recently and I was able to notice certain plot points being alluded to a full season in advance. Each season is very much connected to the previous, so much so that the bridge between season 1 and 2 is a few minutes apart from each other.
The show also captures setting perfectly. Whether it’s the tavern, brothel, a nobleman’s estate or a pirate vessel sailing on the high seas or engaging in ship to ship combat, the show just feels right and more to the point, real. Every episode, I feel completely immersed into the world and the sets that were created on location in South Africa. The naval engagements are particularly tense, showing the brutality of canon fire as well as the detailing of angling the ship just right in the wind. I think it’s also worth mentioning that the show doesn’t go full Game of Thrones with how it treats death in the main cast. Season 1 has only one main death and in a show centered around violent individuals, it’s refreshing to see that the show takes it’s time and only does something if it furthers the plot, even if it takes two years in real time to understand why. That being said, the show is very R rated, showcasing the violent world of lawlessness in a tropical paradise.
Black Sails will end with season 4, January 2017.