Television, these days, has found a fascination with the 18th Century, it seems (Sleepy Hollow, Turn, Black Sails, etc.). And not only ye olde 1700s, but tales of the high seas, pirates, swashing buckles and swigging rum. Starz had its Black Sails, and now NBC is taking a crack at the Golden Age of Pirates with its new summer series Crossbones. The series has a logical place on the NBC schedule, sliding into the spot inhabited by Hannibal during the “regular” season. Like Hannibal, Crossbones is a bit of an anomaly on broadcast TV: its smart, often philosophical, dialogue and exploration of ideas beyond the plot.
It’s hard not to compare Crossbones with Black Sails; both feature legendary pirate kings sailing by on their past glories, but whose legends, perhaps exceed their current situations. Crossbones’ Blackbeard (a name the pirate eschews, I assume for more reasons than his beard is no longer black, nor scraggly), Edward Teach is a man of the Enlightenment. He has a fascination with timepieces, and especially a chronometer just on the edge of invention–one that will allow the British, seeking to sniff him out of his Caribbean hiding place, and put an end to the piracy that plagues the powerful naval fleet of the English crown. But Teach’s designs on obtaining this bit of technology isn’t only to possess it; he has something quite other in mind.
Teach is an intelligent man: well read, willing to push the bounds of intellectual pursuit (he uses acupuncture to cure the headaches that plague him constantly). He surrounds himself with brilliant colleagues (whether he trusts them or not is up for debate–even to him): a genius code-cracking woman, Selima el Sharad (Yasmin al Masri), and a Jacobite former Earl (and exile), James Balfour (Peter Stebbings), who has a genius for assembling intricate machinery.
The Crown, at this point in Blackbeard’s story, has long presumed the pirate to be dead and gone, a situation Teach wishes to perpetuate. However, the governor of Jamaica, William Jagger (Julian Sands) believes otherwise, and sends a spy (a sort of 18th Century 007) to ferret him out, luring him in with the new chronometer as bait.
That spy–and Blackbeard’s adversary in the series), Thomas Lowe (Richard Coyle), handily, is also a trained physician and surgeon–and also, like Blackbeard, quite a man of the Enlightenment. Early in the series’ first hour, Lowe is taken prisoner as pirates attack his ship (on which he is tasked with protecting the bait…the chronometer). But Lowe manages to destroy the chronometer and set ablaze the instructions before he is taken. Lowe is quite the persuasive (and charming) man, and his medical abilities (and his knowledge of save him from not being immediately assassinated–that, and his claim that he alone can decipher the now-damaged code book containing the instructions. With his knowledge, Blackbeard can reconstruct the chronometer and have his prize.
For his part, Lowe seems quite attracted to the Lady Balfour (Claire Foy). She seems interested as well, but the lady is devoted to her invalid husband, who had been tortured by the British for his Jacobite activities in deposing the King. Again, Lowe’s medical expertise comes in handy, as it brings together this triangle.
Unlike the lavishly produced cable series Black Sails, Crossbones does not boast quite so large a cast, nor quite so many intertwining storylines. But it’s good, and I’m intrigued. The series is beautifully produced, intricate and gorgeous sets expand on the plot and dialogue, rendering the entire setting rich in glorious 18th Century extravagance. The dialogue is intelligent and snappy; Crossbones is smartly written. The characters are well-drawn, and the acting is uniformly superb. We seem to know the characters almost from the start, but we don’t know quite as much as we think we do, as the plot takes hold.
Malkovich is fabulous as the tempered-by-time and legend, more philosophical Blackbeard, and Coyle is also excellent in not quite so flamboyant a role. He is charming, smart and a bit of a rake, himself as the risk-taking British spy, who sees a much bigger picture than simply assassinating an aging, yet still quite deadly, pirate.
The series uses its 18th Century setting, as well, to comment on our own society. For example, Blackbeard expounds at length on the futility of torture as a way of obtaining information. However, he doesn’t think twice about slicing through the neck of a perceived adversary or in response to a slight.
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