If I told you that there’s a show out there that’s a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, you might look for it on something like The Disney Channel or Nickelodeon. If I told you that it was on Starz, and if you’ve ever seen an original Starz production before, you’d quickly adjust your expectations.
Indeed, Black Sails is not your father’s kind of pirate story. It’s not your kid’s kind of pirate story, either—at least I hope it isn’t, because no one under driving age should be watching it.
That’s one of the show’s few flaws, in fact: Like other Starz productions, Black Sails seems almost insistent in the way it revels in extreme violence and sexuality in every single episode. Normally that doesn’t bother me, but in Black Sails the sheer volume of X-rated content on display becomes paradoxically boring. Around every corner you expect to see another extended bloody murder or full-frontal shot—on one occasion, the screenwriters stretched themselves to do both at the same time.
So yes, it’s an indulgent cable show that seems to be hitting quotas for mutilations and mammies. But if you can get past that (or if it’s a bonus), Black Sails is also a tightly scripted period piece that handles a large and intriguing cast of characters with surprising grace. And, while it isn’t quite as ostentatious as, say, Game of Thrones in terms of production, it sells its story more than well enough to keep me coming back for more.
Black Sails takes place in and around the pirate port of Nassau in the Bahamas, during the golden age of sailing in the early 1700s. The first episode quickly establishes our primary figures, many of which you’ll recognize from the endlessly retold Treasure Island. There’s the ruthless steely eyed pirate Captain Flint (Toby Stevens), young and surprisingly sure-footed Long John Silver (Luke Arnold), and equally young Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), all raiding merchant ships and dodging navies in the West Indies.
Flint and his shrewd quartermaster Gates (Mark Ryan) must keep mutiny down as they chase a vulnerable Spanish treasure galleon that can only be the source of the titular Treasure of said Island. But they also have to deal with the peculiar politics of the Caribbean. Young but ruthless Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) rules the port of Nassau as the designated fence, selling the ill-gotten gains of a dozen pirate crews through her father’s merchant empire.
Guthrie longs to step out of her father’s shadow and claim wealth and power for herself, and so tolerates and finances Flint’s obsessive chase. She also fends off power plays from rival captains like Vane (Zach McGowan), carefully manages the organized chaos of Nassau, and keeps one step ahead of the British and Spanish empires that are an ever-present existential threat.
There are a lot of moving parts in Black Sails. At any moment, a background character like Guthrie’s right-hand man Mr. Scott (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), her girlfriend of negotiable affection Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), or Flint’s mysterious inland contact “Mrs. Barlow” (Louise Barnes) might turn a small piece of information or a chance meeting to their own advantage, upending the carefully laid plots of one crew or another.
And yet, the show is very careful to show you who’s doing what, why, and how it affects everyone else. It makes the first half of season one a real hook in terms of story and character, as newcomer John Silver tries to parlay some vital info into a fortune and an un-cut throat.
After a particularly visceral ship boarding in the first episode, the show keeps its expensive pirate action on the back burner for a while. But once Flint and company get back to raiding, Black Sails shows an impressive amount of restraint. I’m no nautical expert or historian, but the writers seem to be lovingly using real sailing techniques and historically accurate terminology and movement to keep the fights between the big ships compelling. There are none of Jack Sparrow’s bootlegger turns in the Black Pearl here.
One particularly tense episode is a standout, in which Flint’s crew has to penetrate a reinforced “panic room” of a ship they’ve captured while the Royal Navy snoops around for them in the dark of night. Ditto for a series of bluffs made through signals and spyglasses late in the season. Even though the interior ship sets rarely change and the wide shots are skillful CG by necessity, it’s some surprisingly heart-pounding stuff, especially for something that’s clearly trying to be true to the setting.
I’ve only made it through the first season of Black Sails, with most of three more left. But even without its biggest plot point tied up, and even knowing where things have to end in broad strokes (Long John Silver’s not going to keep both his legs for too long, et cetera), I have to admit that I’m hooked. As a bonus, going into season two, it seems like the writers aren’t feeling the need to constantly fill the screen with X-rated goodies, instead letting the plot and characters take the show where it needs to go. At least most of the time.
Black Sails is more akin to Master and Commander than Pirates of the Caribbean. But it’s worth watching if you want a tight and nimble plot, and assuming you can stomach its more indulgent moments. Weigh anchor on the Starz streaming service, or pick up the full series for a surprisingly low price on Blu-ray, if you’re ready to start the journey. It’s also available on Hulu, and the first season is on Amazon Prime Video—viewers outside the United States might find it on other services as well.