Sunday, June 1, 2014

Crossbones Episode 1: A Review

Danger: Spoilers ahead
Now that the obligatory warning is out of the way, let us proceed.
Friday 30th of May saw the series premiere of the newest NBC nighttime drama, Crossbones, a story of intrigue and human drama set in the 18th century Caribbean and loosely connected with pirates.
The tale presented in the premiere, and thus setting up the driving plot of the initial season (assuming that there will be a second and subsequent seasons, which I am not willing to do at this juncture), is of the British Empire ruling the waves, unmatched, but for pesky pirates in the New World, the worst among them, Blackbeard!  Secret Agent Tom Lowe (played by Brit Richard Coyle who famously played Jeff Murdock in the BBC's Coupling and starred in the adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Going Postal as Moist von Lipwig) is assigned cover as a ship's surgeon by the governor of Jamaica (played by Julian Sands of Warlock fame) as a prized chronometer, the plans for said device and the inventor are being transported back to England to present the marvelous MacGuffin to the king.  This device will allow sailing ships to accurately determine longitude at sea (if you know nothing about seamanship and navigation then just think of it as a GPS) and thus the British can immediately overcome all pirates everywhere all the time.  Take that, Blackbeard.  Only that's silly.  Plot contrivance notwithstanding, Lowe is NOT there to prevent the chronometer from falling into enemy hands.
He's there to kill Blackbeard, the infamous freedom fighter pirate who Lowe believes to be dead already; killed by the governor's own hand.  Only he's not. This fact the governor confirms and so off Lowe goes to, presumably, get captured on purpose as not a soul knows where Blackbeard hides out.  There are just so many islands out there and nobody has a chart...I guess.
As happens in these stories Lowe is captured after blowing up the chronometer, partially burning the plans for its creation and poisoning the inventor, but he is kept alive to keep the inventor alive as the pirates WANT THAT GPS.  But he dies anyway and Lowe buys his life by saying that he will decipher the unburned parts of the plans, which are encoded.
His meeting with Blackbeard reveals a worldly, intelligent, cultured man (played by the esteemed John Malkovich), who does have cruel streak and headaches with weird visions and nosebleeds.  Through a series of spy events Lowe successfully poisons Blackbeard and as he makes his escape discovers a plot forming between Spain and the pirates and so he turns back and risks his all to SAVE Blackbeard because if Eddie dies, Lowe will never know what the plans are to be with Spain to the demise of England.  And thus is the series set up.
Tom Lowe (port side) and Blackbeard (starboard)
This series is supposedly based on Collin Woodard's non-fiction account of the pirate republic in the Bahamas in the early 18th century entitled The Republic of Pirates, but I've read that book twice and it seems more like NBC's attempt to make STARZ's Black Sails without all the tits adrift.  Crossbones has the feel of the type of drama currently very fashionable on pay television, but taking that Game of Thrones market share is going to be damn nigh impossible.  As comfortable as prime time network TV is getting with lewd behavior, fisting on the big 3 is still many, many years away.
As with any series a certain liberty with historical accuracy is expected and not too jarring...yet.  There is a definite poetic comparison between Eddie Blackbeard, who calls himself commodore of the island, denounces kings, speaks intelligently about a variety of subjects (God is a clockmaker...supported by the imagery of many clocks surrounding him), and claims to govern by the authority of his people and the governor of Jamaica, who in the few scenes we see of him seems completely at home with torture and brutality, torturing and murdering a captured pirate while seeking information about Blackbeard.  In the middle is Lowe, loyal to his King and Country, seeking to kill Blackbeard upon orders but saving him for a higher purpose.  No doubt the two of them will have much cat and mouse playing and verbal fencing as the plot continues.
After the cancellation of NBC's Dracula, one cannot help but think that Crossbones is likely doomed to a single season.  Unlike the latest police procedural, shows such as this must go up against similar shows on pay channels that give the same intrigue and character development, but throw in lots of sex and language to get the jaded viewers to commit.  As it stands, Crossbones was more swashbuckling than I expected given the supposed basis (Woodard's book) and felt more like Black Sails than was comfortable (including the key, "I've got the secret code stored in my head so you can't kill me, ha ha" scene), but Black Sails, for all its fancy does seem to have more, dare I say it, historical verisimilitude.  Black Sails seems to focus often on piracy as a business and for all their bluster the pirates of Black Sails seem more like real people, not just stock villains, while much of the pirating on Crossbones seemed of the POTC variety.
I won't praise nor condemn the show on a single episode and I am intrigued enough to watch again next week.  It is a pirate show (well, there are pirates in it) after all.
If you are looking for Pirates of the Caribbean, however, you will be sadly disappointed.  There is not a swishing sugar-pants Jackie Sparrow amongst them.  Yet.

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