Most broadcast networks rely on a heavy lineup of unscripted “reality” programs during their summer months, so it’s especially encouraging to see NBC rolling out the lavish and almost unlawfully fun pirate saga Crossbones tonight, with Emmy winner John Malkovich as the legendary Blackbeard.
Whoops, sorry. Make that “The Commodore,” because the B-word is frowned upon on the secret Caribbean island where Edward Teach (Malkovich) holds court, some 11 years after his reputed death during a 1718 sea battle. “We don’t use that name here,” he purrs quietly yet dangerously to each newcomer who finds himself in Teach’s presence. His logic? If Blackbeard is “dead,” no one is likely to come looking for him.
From his tropical hideaway, Teach dispatches crews of pirates to retrieve precious treasures that have caught his eye. As the story opens, his latest fixation is the Longitude Chronometer, a new invention that allows ships at sea to stay unerringly on their course. When Teach sends out a massive attack on the English vessel entrusted with delivering the chronometer into royal hands, however, his pirates are in for a jolt: The supposedly mild-mannered medical officer aboard the vessel is actually Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle, Coupling), a spy whom the ruthless governor of Jamaica (Julian Sands) has charged with protecting the invention – and, oh yeah, also assassinating Blackbeard at this earliest opportunity.
Lowe is able to destroy the chronometer during the attack, but the pirates retrieve the inventor’s encrypted notebook containing instructions on how to build another of the devices. In a very ballsy move, after Lowe and his loyal cabin boy, Fletch (Chris Perfetti), are captured, Lowe memorizes the key to the encrypted book, then burns it, ensuring his own continued well-being at Teach’s hands.
As Crossbones unfolds, Teach and Lowe discover a grudging respect for each other, although the old pirate is determined to secure his prize at any cost. Meanwhile, Lowe falls in love with Kate Balfour (Claire Foy from the 2008 Masterpiece Classic miniseries adaptation of Little Dorrit), the pretty and very resourceful quartermistress entrusted with buying and selling supplies in their island community.
Malkovich, as always, is absolutely fascinating in the principal role, sketching in a characterization that is both fiercely intelligent and quirkily eccentric. Coyle, who starred as Piper Perabo’s secret lover in Season 3 of Covert Affairs, makes a splendidly cool foil for Malkovich’s sometimes over-the-top flamboyance.
Crossbones is one of those international co-productions (like NBC’s recent failed series remake of Dracula), so don’t expect to recognize that many other faces among the cast. Special effects are just so-so (the CGI looks, well, computer-generated), but the set and art direction in some of the scenes is absolutely stunning.
Crossbones is no masterpiece, but it has enough energy and imagination to qualify as perfect summer entertainment.