TV Tuesday: Black Sails

Ads for Black Sails were plastered all over the place when it hit Amazon/Lovefilm last year, presumably because ol’ Number 2 wanted something to rival the various prestige dramas Netflix had. And it’s …

… it’s OK, I guess. I keep watching it for some reason. It does have a great title sequence.

I like pirates; that’s no secret. I mean, everyone likes pirates, but I’m fascinated by the history behind the yarr-me-hearties stuff. The golden age of piracy is one of those periods in that mushy zone between a weak state and total anarchy where all kinds of odd stuff happens — and our knowledge of it is brought to us mainly by a sensationalist British press that simultaneously wanted to condemn pirate barbarity and tell thrilling tales about their adventures.

So not much has changed there!

As a TV show, this thing is all over the map. It’s a prequel to Treasure Island, which is kind of a neat idea, but it’s got the usual problem where it can’t decide if it’s an episodic adventure show or a long-form drama so it keeps going in narrative circles. It can only afford to do big battles with ships and cannons and stuff every now and again, so the middle of each season is a wasteland of people talking in brothels. And as for the brothel … uch.

No, hang on, I will say that for all this series’ corny porny brothel bullshit its main heroic character is (spoilers) a gay pirate, and his same-sex love affair is his big noble motivation. So good on them for that; it was getting weird to see a show about sailors with no homosexuality at all. But there’s still a lot of “the viewers might think this scene is boring so we’ll put some titties in it.” And, as always, the prostitutes in the 18th-century Bahamas are suspiciously attractive. But then so are the pirates! Some of them, anyway, in that rugged outdoorsy way we’re finding attractive again these days.

The thing that I think is really interesting about this setting is its insistence on making people look “realistic,” even when that may not be anything like the historical sources. So in the show, Charles Vane looks like this:

Hello, ladies.

You can tell it’s realistic! He’s covered in grime! He has lots of greebling, with bracelets and bracers (for why?) and a tiny dirty scarf! But insofar as we know anything about what the historical Charles Vane looked like, it’s:

Good day, gentlewomen!
Good day, gentlewomen!

I understand that they want to make people look visually distinct and so on, and there is one pirate captain who dresses much like he does in A General History of the PyratesBenjamin Hornigold. But I think that the typical viewer sees Vane above as much more “authentic” than Vane below, despite his … leather … girdle … thing.

For all I know, there’s a historical inspiration for the leather girdle thing somewhere, but it has a certain Hollywoody whiff about it to my admittedly-inexpert senses.

There are some very broad historical themes in evidence, like the British government’s attempt to bring the Bahamas in line without spending too much money on it, or the way that piracy and respectable trade were closely connected to each other, or the fact that there were lots of ordinary people just trying to go about their lives with all these damn pirates around. There’s even kind of a Utopian political aspect, which is either a nod to the idea of Libertatia or a desire to emulate Deadwood.

So anyway, yes, it’s been two seasons of looking for that One Big Score in an ever-widening circle of complications, and although it makes pleasant noise to have on when thinking about something else, and although there are actually some clever bits in it here and there, I’m not sure I can recommend the whole twenty hours or whatever it is. I just watch a lot of television because I like having noise and colour around when I’m working alone at home.

TV Tuesday: Black Sails