The first thing to note about NBC’s new pirate drama Crossbones, about the legendary Blackbeard, is that the actor portraying him, John Malkovich, sports a small gray goatee. This Blackbeard also doesn’t like the name Blackbeard (probably because he doesn’t have one), and prefers the distinction The Commodore, or occasionally around his friends, Ed. You see, the Blackbeard you thought you knew from legend is really more of a utopian socialist / Deist / appreciator of overdecorating, with a deep affinity for clocks. But perhaps not all is lost. There’s a lot of pretty water. Hit the jump for more.
Created by Neil Cross and James V. Hart & Amanda Welles, Crossbones feels like many other high-seas and island-dwelling shows before it, from the likes of BBC America’s Sinbad to NBC’s own Crusoe. There are beautiful beach scenes, with crystal waters and gently waving palms that are just the sort of thing to lull one to sleep on a Friday summer’s night, except for the gore and violence in between.
Like Hannibal, whose slot Crossbones is taking over, there’s a gruesome nature to Crossbones that includes hangings, throat-cuttings and other bloody demises, many of which are packed into the first fifteen minutes of the first episode. But its main thrust is around the relationship of two men, Blackbeard (who I will refer to as Blackbeard, despite his preferences, to keep things simple) and physician / Royal spy Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle). The year is 1712, and Blackbeard has been a thorn in the British Navy’s side for quite some time now. Lowe, as a kind of 18th century MI-6 figure, has been dispatched to find and dispose of Blackbeard (who they thought they had disposed of years ago), before the scurvy dog can get his hands on a new high-seas invention called a “chronometer” (the MacGuffin that kicks things off in the first hour).
As things go more or less according to plan, Lowe is captured and taken to Blackbeard’s island, which is part retirement hangout, part Asian-inspired flea market. From there, he and the rogue pirate exchange a number of tête-à-têtes about religion, loyalty, and other such matters on the white, sandy beaches, although with the threat of death ever-near. Lowe can’t decide whether he should kill Blackbeard on the spot, or cultivate a friendship with him so he can extract further information. Since the show would be over too quickly if he chose the former, he goes with that latter, and there’s really not a lot more thought put into it than that.
But really this is Lowe’s show, not Blackbeard’s, and that choice is an odd one from Luther scribe Neil Cross. Blackbeard and Lowe dance around each other conversationally and, occasionally, with lots of blood, but it’s never clear who exactly is working whom, much like the relationship between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham. Like Hannibal, Blackbeard has a calm and cultivated demeanor that hides a darkness within (and one that sees visions, on top of everything else), which Malkovich handles with typical aplomb. And by the end of the second hour, it is clear that he also enjoys masterminding stratagems on his island that help him deal with foes while still remaining popular. He also keeps close a number of women in a chaste coterie to help him with this work, including a foul-tempered cypher expert, Selima (Yasmine Al Masri), and a traitor to the crown, Lady Catherine Balfour (Claire Foy).
Lady Catherine also catches the eye of Lowe, and vice-versa, but she happens to be on Blackbeard’s island with her husband, Charles (David Hoflin), who is crippled and in ill-health due to his time spent in a rank British prison, thanks to his Jacobin ways. These dramas all begin to come together, loosely, by the third hour, but since Crossbones was ordered straight-to-series last year without a pilot, that means any kinks within their telling will have to be worked out along the way.
The bottom line is that Crossbones has a great cast that it doesn’t do enough with, and its thin plot devices and frothy feel (despite the violence) will likely lack sufficient gravitas and interest for many. There are things to like about Crossbones (such as the scenery, let it be said once more — it’s not a bad place to get shipwrecked on a Friday night), but ultimately there just may not be enough there to hold audiences captive for long.
Crossbones premieres Friday, May 30th on NBC at 10 p.m. ET.