“Black Sails” begins on board a doomed ship, one that’s being attacked by pirates, and not of the Disney variety. The vessels lurch together, and the deck is in chaos, bodies piling up, smoke from cannon and musket blasts filling the air. When the aggressors prepare to break down the door behind which the captain and crew have barricaded themselves, they first let loose a rhythmic war chant and then a barrel loaded with explosives. Into the stunned, muted haze following the blast roars a man with a painted skull face and the teeth of a shark who leads the slaughter inside.
In the calm scene that follows, the captain having surrendered and the ship secured and in the midst of being plundered, the same intimidating figure pops up in an attempt to scare the pirate’s quartermaster Gates (Mark Ryan), who just rolls his eyes and tells his cohort to grow up as the man takes out what’s actually a mouthpiece. These pirates may be capable of brutality, but theirs is an industry, and they also appreciate that theatricality can take you a long way and has a reliable ability to get opponents to lay down their weapons with less effort. The shock and awe of their incursion isn’t just practiced, it’s practical, meant to encourage the sailors on board who are just there for the wages not to die protecting cargo in which they have no investment.
The creation of Jonathan E. Steinberg (“Jericho”) and Robert Levine (“Human Target”), Starz’s newest series, which premieres this Saturday, January 25th at 9pm, is both a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” and executive producer Michael Bay’s first excursion into the small screen. Despite these facts, its primary pleasures are not found in explosions or revampings of the classic pirate adventure tale, but, as alarming as this may sound, in its politics. The series has its share of action (“The Descent” filmmaker Neil Marshall, who helmed the “Blacksea” installment of “Game of Thrones,” directs the first and third episodes) and of the grasping, frantic sex scenes the network seems to treat as obligatory, but its strengths lie in its portrayals of the constantly shifting alliances and loyalties in the pirate haven of Nassau on New Providence Island in the Bahamas in 1715, a place as intrigue filled as any court, only more cutthroat (literally).
“Black Sails” is based in a town that’s made up of career thieves, outlaws and prostitutes, all sustained by an unstable economy dependent on the black market dealings of the stolen goods by Richard Guthrie (Sean Cameron Michael), who’s left his hot-tempered daughter Eleanor (Hannah New) to manage the business while he maintains a pretense of legitimacy on Harbour Island. Many of the its dramas are about how a community with no rules or leaders (beyond its elected captains) continues on a day-to-day basis, and in this the series’ clearest ancestor is “Deadwood,” a similar tale of a chaotic settlement on the edge of civilization, rather than a Bay-style blockbuster.
“Black Sails” is in no danger of catching up to the brilliant “Deadwood,” at least not judging from the four episodes that were given to the press, but it is the most coherent and compelling of Starz’s recent rounds of original programming, which include the historical fantasy “Da Vinci’s Demons,” the now canceled “Magic City” and BBC co-production “The White Queen.” Its cast of relative unknowns from around the world are all very solid, with Toby Stephens and Luke Arnold making the biggest impressions as Captain Flint and John Silver, two decades before the events in Stevenson’s novel. Stephens plays Flint as commanding and iron-willed, his competence obscuring a manic edge that peeks out when he talks about his ideas for the future of Nassau, while Silver’s unassuming, almost foolish demeanor hides a startling canniness that becomes more and more evident as continues to figure out ways to not just stay alive but get ahead after being introduced to the pirate port.
Other characters are based on real historic figures from the golden age of piracy — like the swaggering Captain Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), his quick-witted quartermaster Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz) and the rare female pirate Anne Bonny (Clara Paget). Eleanor has considerable power in the community, but its residents are not her subjects and owe her no fealty, as her advisor Mr. Scott (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) is quick to point out, and like everyone else in town her relationships are a complex mix of the personal and the economic — she pays, for instance, for her current lover Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), who works at the brothel, to not have to sleep with anyone else. There’s Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), the closest the show has to an idealist (“No one gets any special treatment — here everyone is equal,” he tells Silver), who nevertheless gets pulled into Flint’s machinations and struggles to figure out if the captain is trustworthy and if he’s doing right by the men. Then there’s the mysterious Mrs. Barlow (Louise Barnes), whose place in the story isn’t at first made clear.
“Black Sails” has touches of silliness — the underlying one being the robust attractiveness of the main cast, the rough lives of their characters mainly being expressed in how effortlessly sea-tousled their hair tends to be and the smudges of grime on their gym-toned limbs. But there’s an intelligence to its treatment of the Nassau community and whether a settlement based on lawlessness and a shadow economy is sustainable — one that takes the series in some complicated and unexpected directions as Flint tries to hold on to the loyalty of his crew while steering them in a direction of a prize he wants for reasons that aren’t all in the open, and Eleanor finds her business threatened and Vane causes trouble. These characters have forsaken their places in polite society or never had ones to begin with — how they coexist and how they deal with the threat of the British returning to reclaim rule are worthy questions, and ones the show doesn’t seem prone to answer carelessly.