When word got out that Disney was making a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, everyone scoffed. A ride? As inspiration for a movie? Yo-ho, yo-ho, that sounds like a terrible idea. And maybe it was a terrible idea, but then the movies came out, and suddenly people couldn’t stop spending their money on them. Action and adventure! Massive production values, Johnny Depp, a semi-decent romance, maybe even a sense of humor — all from a goddamn ride. Now here’s Black Sails, a Michael Bay–produced pirate drama that premieres on Starz at 8 p.m. tonight, based loosely on some of the ideas of Treasure Island. That’s rich source material! And yet the show is this anti-Rumpelstiltskin that turns gold into hay. How can a show overflowing with pirates and nudity be so boring?
Black Sails is not a direct adaptation of Treasure Island; it’s a prequel of sorts, kind of an origin story for John Silver (Luke Arnold), as he first encounters Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), his variously terrifying crew members, and the other sailors and sex workers who populate the volatile West Indies. Everyone’s beard is scraggly and their skin craggy; teeth are yellow, lips are cracked, and all the clothes look appropriately caked in filth. You can tell who the more important pirates are because they’re the better-looking actors. That big, tall, strapping guy? Yeah, he matters. That guy with half a tooth? Don’t worry about him.
Do you want sword fighting? There’s plenty of that. There’s some cannon fire and maritime warfare, too. How about a character getting beaten to death? Oh, sure. Heck, there’s even blood spatter that lingers on the camera lens. Wan prostitutes give sullen hand jobs to insignificant characters, and 24 minutes into the first episode there’s a brief orgy scene. After that, the show barely goes fifteen minutes without another bare breast; I mean, if we’ve learned anything from Game of Thrones, it’s “set part of your show in a brothel — because hey, free breasts.” There’s a gang rape, several beatings, and a strangely long scene of people talking about having pirate diarrhea. (Did you give us pirate diarrhea on purpose with your bad cooking? If so, we will kill you. Then the Captain comes over and is all, “No, pirates sometimes just get pirate diarrhea, don’t blame this guy’s cooking.” And thus the great pirate diarrhea debate was solved.)
Black Sails is rigidly unspectacular, and it comes at the worst possible time for a show like this not to be very good: You can go to plenty of other places to buy what Black Sails is selling. Try Vikings! There’s not as much nudity or cursing (it’s on History Channel), but there are crazy sword fights and characters you’ll grow to care about. Try Game of Thrones! There’s the same occasional talk of boring tax policy, but sometimes everyone gets slaughtered and there’s a global war in the works. The CW’s Reign is mediocre, but at least it’s having some fun. Starz used to have Spartacus, and that should be what Sails is aspiring to: sexy, dangerous, populated by mostly not-famous but very solid actors, but with enough drama and humanity that it can’t be brushed aside.
I took three tries to get through the first episode of Black Sails. Four episodes later, I wish I had just given up. The main stories focus more on piratical bureaucracy and trade policies on New Providence Island than on human emotions, and it’s hard to get a sense that anything is ever at stake since pirates kill each other all the time. If every situation is a life-or-death situation, then that becomes normalized; it’s a song played only at fortissimo until your ears are ringing and everything feels far away. It’s going to take repeated viewings of Muppet Treasure Island to rehabilitate Treasure Island and its ephemera.