Pirates are the new zombies, or so TV network executives would like us to believe. On Friday, NBC launched its new summer series ‘Crossbones’ as a shot across the bow at ‘Black Sails’ on Starz. If you’ve seen any of the commercials for it, you probably guessed that the show is awful, but just how awful could it be?
Despite the article headline, I won’t waste much time recapping the plot of the ‘Crossbones’ pilot episode, called ‘The Devil’s Dominion’. I’d rather just summarize the show’s premise and focus my attention on where exactly it goes wrong.
Understandably, John Malkovich has taken center stage in all of the network’s marketing for the series. While he’s certainly the biggest name in the cast, he’s not actually the main character. That would be Richard Coyle from ‘Coupling’ as Tom Lowe, a British spy sent undercover to pose as a ship’s doctor sometime in the 1700s. His mission is to protect a fancy navigational doodad called the “Longitude Chronometer,” and to allow himself to be captured by pirates so that he can be brought face-to-face with the dreaded Blackbeard (Malkovich) and kill the bastard.
I’ve only seen a couple episodes of ‘Black Sails’ and honestly wasn’t paying much attention to what I watched. However, it immediately stood out to me that quite a lot of the plotting in the pilot episode of ‘Crossbones’ is a blatant clone of that series. To whit, the main character pretends to be an ordinary ship hand (a cook in ‘Black Sails’), when he’s captured and brought to a pirate haven island. To save his own skin, he destroys an important navigational tool but memorizes its code-key in order to make himself invaluable. Many other similarities exist, down to the various characters and their relationships with each other.
I don’t know which series was actually developed first. It’s possible that ‘Crossbones’ may have originally been intended to air last year, only to get pushed back so as not to directly compete with ‘Black Sails’ (or because the network saw how bad the show is and decided to dump it in a Friday night death-slot in the summer). Regardless of which stole from which, the fact is that the only two pirate shows on television right now are shockingly derivative of one another. As the latecomer, this one fares worst.
More than that, ‘Crossbones’ is just a mess. As a major network series, it has none of the sex, nudity or trashy fun that are basically the main redeeming characteristics of ‘Black Sails’. Even worse is the pacing. The pilot episode feels like it was probably intended to be a two-hour premiere, but was condensed and compressed into a single hour instead. As a result, every scene and every single shot within every scene is cut to within a millimeter of its life. This thing moves at a frantic race, rushing from one line of dialogue to another in a never-ending info-dump of exposition with no time at all to breathe or to offer any character beats that don’t explicitly push the plot forward. The whole thing is then smothered with a constantly-crescendoing musical score to make it seem exciting. It’s exhausting to watch.
Trapped somewhere in this disaster is a pretty good performance from Richard Coyle. His character might have been interesting if served better by the material. As you’d expect, Malkovich is in full-on ham mode, but appealingly so. I have no idea what accent he’s trying to do, but it’s kind of fun. Some of his dialogue has an eloquence that suggests that the project may have started with nobler intentions.
Sadly, the final result is nigh unwatchable. Is it possible that future episodes might take a breath and develop at a more reasonable pace? Perhaps, but I have no intention of watching again just to find out.