Binge Guide

Weekly Binge: Black Sails

by | January 21, 2015 | Comments

Starz’s Black Sails embarks on its second season this Saturday at 9 pm, and make no (cross)bones about it — you’ve never seen pirates like this before. Here’s where and why to catch up with Captain Flint’s crew of marauding corsairs as they plunder their way to the biggest score of 1715.

Black Sails

Black Sails

What’s the premise? A prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Black Sails follows one pirate crew’s pursuit of a Spanish treasure galleon as events take place on land and on sea.

What’s it like? Black Sails has all the swords and sex one would want from a Starz historical epic while thoughtfully unfolding individual stories in a fashion that we’ve come to expect from modern TV storytelling. Think Spartacus meets Mad Men, a world in which the women — though small in numbers — learn to survive, subvert, and eventually succeed in a sea of ruthless chauvinists. Of course, the men of 1960s Madison Avenue are slightly less savage than the pirates of 18th-century New Providence. The adventures of Flint (Toby Stephens), Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), Eleanor (Hannah New), Vane (Zach McGowan), and John Silver (Luke Arnold) play out in 1715 Nassau during the “Golden Age of Piracy,” told against big-budget sets and cinema-worthy action.

Where can I see it? Season one is on DVD and Blu-ray, and is available to stream on Starz Play, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, iTunes, and Vudu.

How long will it take? At eight hours, season one plays out like one long movie, so you can definitely catch up for Black Sails‘ return Saturday night.

What do the critics think? Season one debuted to mixed reviews with a Fresh Tomatometer score of 64 percent. Most critcs had the same overall comment — that the pilot showed a great deal of potential, but that Black Sails needed to figure out what it wanted to be. As Grantland’s Andy Greenwald wrote, “Black Sails feels marooned between possibilities.” But after screening four episodes of season one, Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter said, “It becomes clear that Black Sails has more ambition than merely artfully framing a lesbian sex scene or a sword fight. It has a fairly large story to tell and, even by the end of the fourth episode, is unspooling it slower and with more care than one might have imagined when considering the words ‘Michael Bay’ and ‘pirates’ and ‘Starz.'” Carrie Kroop from Common Sense Media also found Black Sails exceeding her expectations. “It actually has a lot more to offer, including a complex plot and a compelling roster of characters — both fictional and factual — that combine to create an effective fantasy world.” And Gail Pennington of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch captured one very specific plus to watching Black Sails: “This is one gorgeous show.”

Why should I watch this? Black Sails is a must for viewers who love period pieces. The sets, the costumes, and, of course, the swashbuckling, all place you smack-dab in the middle of an age when English ex-privateers plundered treasures of the Caribbean. Then there are the big-budget action scenes set against turquoise seas and the lustful encounters enacted by gorgeous cast members (Game of Thrones fans will be excited to see that “Blackwater” director Neil Marshall is behind a couple of season one episodes). But there is a realism to Black Sails which helps offer a more rounded view of pirate life. In particular, women and people of color are not bound to the societal laws of the time and can rise to power through their own hustle, and the political and financial systems of the British, the Spanish, and the Bahamians make for a fresh tale from history on the small screen.

What’s my next step? You could investigate the many incarnations of Treasure Island (including, God forbid, reading the book!) which follows up with Long John Silver 20 years later, but the TV shows most in line with Black Sails are Vikings, Rome, The Tudors, The Borgias, and Deadwood. Also, if you’re a Starz subscriber, you can binge Spartacus, Da Vinci’s Demons, and Outlander on Starz Play. For something a bit more tame, try season one of NBC’s Crossbones with John Malkovich or BBC America’s The Musketeers, now airing season two.

Are you ready to take the plunge with Black Sails? Tell us why!