Black Sails, the lavish new pirate adventure series premiering tonight on Starz, freely blends actual historical characters (like pirate queen Anne Bonny) with newly created fictional characters to present a raucous, action-packed look at life in and around Nassau, Bahamas, circa 1715, before any kind of colonial law was imposed on the region.
As the series opens, Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) and the crew of his ship, the Walrus, are raiding another vessel they hope will swell their coffers after a very lean stretch. Their bad luck holds, however. Apart from a new cook who goes by the name John Silver (Luke Arnold), they acquire nothing of any real value.
That’s a tough break for Flint, whose fearsome reputation strikes terror in many hearts. His men, however, are on the verge of stripping Flint of his command and making another charismatic crew member their new captain. Only Flint’s quartermaster, Gates (Mark Ryan), and boatswain, Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), remain reasonably steadfast.
Nor do Flint’s problems stop there. He’s also being challenged by Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), captain of the pirate ship Ranger, and his cunning quartermaster Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz). Both Flint and Vane are hot on the trail of a page that is missing from a ship’s log that, Flint believes, will point the way to a Spanish treasure galleon worth millions.
As the balance of power between these two men shifts back and forth, local smuggler and tavern-keeper Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New, who looks a bit like Keira Knightley if Keira Knightley ever ate a sandwich) keeps shifting her own allegiances.
Beyond that short set-up, the creative team behind Black Sails (Michael Bay is one of the executive producers) has requested that TV writers reveal as little as possible about this new series, so as not to spoil surprises about past and present alliances, betrayals, love affairs and blood feuds among the characters.
Stephens, who happens to be the son of Downton Abbey fan favorite Maggie Smith, buckles his swash very grandly in the central role, but it’s important to note that Black Sails isn’t populated by Disney pirates. There are some scenes of comic banter among the crew members, but by and large these are ruthless, cruel and very violent men (that raid that opens tonight’s premiere is really pretty scary).
The jaw-dropping details of the physical production, which actually is based in Capetown, South Africa, vividly evoke the bustling daily activity of New Providence Island, where these outlaws make their home, and even though the pirate ship scenes usually are filmed on dry land, the vessels themselves are multi-level things of great nautical beauty.
Starz clearly has placed a lot of faith in Black Sails. Even before this first eight-episode season premieres, the premium cable network already has ordered a second 10-episode season. Prospective viewers may want to be aware that, as was the case with the channel’s hit Spartacus series, there is copious nudity in Black Sails, although unlike Spartacus, it seems to be limited to the female cast members.
In any case, make sure to keep any small fry away from this very, very adult series.