Pirate TV: Why the Black Box Loves a Black Flag

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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John Malkovich plays Blackbeard in 'Crossbones.'
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

Poets are supposedly inspired to apply their pen to paper (or rather keyboard to the screen, or finger to the tablet’s touchscreen) by their inner demons or muses, to each her/his own. Prosaic pen-pushers (or mouse clickers) like yours truly have to do it with their Facebook feed. And mine ambushed me one day with a meme telling me: “Always be yourself. Unless you can be a pirate. Then always be a pirate.”

The first part of the advice-cum-command is tricky to begin with. True, it does not suggest you should be someone else’s self, but it does give one pause: Do we actually know our own self? Do we know what it really is? Can we truly decide to be, or not to be, ourselves? Admittedly, it is a conundrum to delve into with one’s own shrink, and not something to dig into in a TV column; but what about the ability to be, or not to be, a pirate?

Being a pirate is what supposedly ignites the spark of imagination in children: I can attest to devising pirate costumes for my children, and to marveling at my grandchildren in pirate garb at Purim. Sadly, I cannot remember myself ever wishing to be a pirate, the romantic aura of being one – adventurous, dangerous, macho, dashing, and free, one’s own master – notwithstanding.

'Black Sails.' Renewed for another season.

When we think and talk about pirates we think “Treasure Island” and “Pirates of the Carribean.” When we think some more, we realize that it is not just romance and adventure, but mainly plain robbery (not highway, but seaway), lethal, cruel, involving abduction for ransom purposes. Nor is it a matter of the past: pirates cruise today off the coasts of Africa, and even the clear and present danger of ISIS has symptoms of piracy.

That seems to be the background for not one, but two series about pirates which sprouted on our TV screens, following trends set in motion by American producers who try to lure and glue audiences to their channels, and succeed where it matters (to advertisers, mainly): (pi)ratings.

“Black Sails” premiered in January 2014 on YouTube for free, and then was broadcast on Starz cable channel (and we have it on HOT VOD now, all eight episodes of the first season). Nine episodes of what was hoped to be the first season of “Crossbones” was commissioned by NBC on “straight-to-series” basis (based on the premise, without a pilot), and went on air in May 2014 (and we have it on Yes VOD).

Both series deal with what is called “The Golden Age of Piracy,” in the first half of the 18th century. Britannia rules the waves, with Spain being close second. Both countries – no longer at war but still vying for world domination – have outposts or colonies in the Americas, with merchandise transported in both directions and carrying human cargo from Africa to the Americas. With many able seamen being released from the Royal Navy and looking for a livelihood, piracy flourished, and navy and merchant ships became enticing prey. That created a need for hubs where looted goods could be offloaded, ports-of-call out of reach of the various established national authorities, mainly British – mainly in the Caribbean.

Both series start in a very similar way: a pirate ship attacks a British vessel, a naval one (in “Crossbones”) or merchant (in “Black Sails”), and after a sea battle (cannons roaring, masts collapsing, men with handguns and sabers boarding ships sailing astern, smoke, blood and general mayhem) the spoils and prisoners are brought ashore.

In “Black Sails,” Captain James Flint (Toby Stephens) alights in Nassau, a lawless colony run with an iron hand by the fair, shrewd Eleonor Guthrie (Hannah New), carrying with him one John Silver. Silver (“Black Sails” is a prequel to “Treasure Island”) poses as a cook, and carries a page torn from the captain’s log of the boarded ship, with information about the course of a Spanish ship carrying a precious cargo.

In “Crossbones” a pirate ship intercepts and takes over a British vessel carrying a new and momentous invention: a chronograph able to keep the correct time at sea, enabling it to pinpoint its location and set and keep to a correct course, and not be at the mercy of pirate ships. The pirates act on orders of one Blackbeard, aka Edward Teach (a real-life historical character, played by none other than John Malkovich), who is presumed dead, but is in hiding and is the self-appointed commander of a pirates’ island. They take on board a prisoner, the ship’s surgeon, Thomas Lowe, who claims to know the secret of making the chronograph, but is really a spy on a mission to kill Blackbeard.

Of the two series, “Crossbones” is darker, and somehow tamer. “Black Sails” seems to be lighter, and much more of the “boobs, blood and sex” variety. Both plots revolve around places with loose morals, and much of the action takes place in taverns and brothels, but in “Black Sails” there is more female bare flesh on view. In both series, one is soon lost in a maze of plots and counter-plots of conspiracies hatched and failed.

One thing common to both series is the motif of seemingly lawless societies trying to establish and run “democratic” colonies, free of arbitrary rules imposed by kings and parliaments. Pirates on a ship demand, and get, voting privileges to decide whether to obey the captain’s orders; the rule of Ms. Guthrie or Blackbeard in their respective dominions can be questioned by anyone who can muster enough public support and second his own motion with enough muscle or money.

And indeed, even the fate of such series is decided by a popular vote of the remote control. “Crossbones,” relying on the drawing power of the story and the star power of Malkovich was pulled off the NBC schedule in mid-course, two episodes short of the finale, and will forever remain a mini-series. “Black Sails,” on the other hand, was renewed for another season.

Which just goes to show that even if you can be a pirate, and therefore the antithesis of yourself, the length of your “always” is forever limited. And that is why I’ll try to remain myself. That is, once I get to know who my self is.