January 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Review: Starz's 'Black Sails' reignites pirate genre in bloody, bawdy way

Tom Hopper, left, and Toby Stephens star in 'Black Sails,' a sexy, new action-packed drama that is a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Treasure Island.' (Keith Bernstein)

Television has more than its share of serial killers, cops, lawyers, doctors, demon hunters, aspiring vocalists and vampires. What could be missing?

Pirates, obviously.

Well, not really. There haven’t been all that many smash pirate movies, novels, plays or really smash pirate anythings in the past few decades. At least not in the classic walk-the-plank, aye-matey, ready-the-cannon tradition. Space pirates, Somali pirates, sure. But Pirate pirates? Who cares?

Well, the world of TV is hoping you will. NBC will be offering “Crossbones” sometime in the spring, with the white-bearded John Malkovich as Blackbeard. But beating them to the punch — and likely carrying quite a bit more punch since it’s on bloody-bawdy pay cable — is Starz with “Black Sails,” which debuts Saturday night.

Executive produced by Michael Bay (“Armageddon,” “Bad Boys,” “Transformers”) with all the slick scope you’d expect, “Black Sails” takes place 20 years before the Robert Louis Stevenson classic “Treasure Island” and even features that novel’s John Silver (Luke Arnold) as an enterprising scoundrel.

At it’s center is the imperious Capt. Flint (Toby Stephens, the son of Maggie Smith, proving there is a gene for condescension), trying to hold together a rowdy and rebellious crew while tracking down the whereabouts of a Spanish ship carrying $5 million. In the grisly battle that opens the series, Flint takes over a ship and finds most of the clues he needs — except for one key page.

That page falls into the hands of Silver, who realizes it’s worth something, even if he’s not quite sure why. When our not-so-merry band of pirates return to the lusty island in the Caribbean where all the cool pirates hang out and do business, Silver tries to figure out how to profit from the piece of paper he has.

Helping him with that profiting — and here things really start getting complicated — is a prostitute named Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy). Along with prostituting and swindling, Max is the comforting lover of Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), the merchant’s daughter who basically runs the island. And Eleanor is the former girlfriend of the violent, sneaky, cruel and all-around low-down pirate Capt. Charles Vane (Zach McGowan, late of “Shameless”), who inevitably turns out to be the show’s most fun.

In keeping with the best and worst traditions of pay cable there are bushels of other characters — The hot gal with the knives! The grizzled First Mate! Topless prostitutes galore! — and plenty of subplots running every which way. To its credit “Black Sails” manages to keep things from getting confusing, even as it piles on the characters and complications.

Oddly enough, very little time is spent at sea in the series’ first four episodes. They are instead mostly about the intrigue building up to the search for the Spanish ship. Alliances are made and broken, power shifts go this way and that, blood is spilled, and wenches keep wenching.

It’s oddly addictive, and the cast — made up mostly of British, Australian and Canadian actors — is as sharp as you’d expect from pay cable. And yet, this is mostly just action and intrigue. There’s none of the mythic heft of say “Game of Thrones” or metaphorical magic of the early “True Blood” or even the personal tragedy and internal conflict of “Dexter.”

Despite a faint political undercurrent — Flint craves independence — “Black Sails” is mostly a boys’ tale told for adult boys, all huffing and puffing and heaving ho. But isn’t that what pirate stories always were? So sail on, mateys.

'Black Sails'

GRADE: B

9 p.m. Saturday

Starz

tlong@detroitnews.com
@toomuchTomLong

Hannah New, left, plays the merchant's daughter and Clara Paget stars as ... (Frank W Ockenfels)