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TV review: Talky 'Black Sails' needs more swashbuckling

By Curt Wagner, @ShowPatrol

RedEye

5:31 PM CST, January 23, 2014

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I was getting bored with Starz's new pirate drama "Black Sails"—then Billy Bones and the crew of the pirate ship Walrus began scraping barnacles off the landlocked vessel.

Who knew barnacle removal could be so fascinating? "Black Sails" (8 p.m. Saturday, Starz; 2.5 stars out of 4) offers many little treasures like this—it just makes viewers endure choppy waters to find them among all the unneeded sex, complicated plots and endless conversation.

A prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's classic "Treasure Island," "Black Sails" mixes characters from that novel with real-life pirates, but doesn't go for the "arrghs" and "ahoy, mateys" of many a pirate productions.

The story opens in 1715 as the Walrus, helmed by the novel's notorious Capt. Flint (Toby Stephens), overtakes another ship presumably for its booty. He actually for a treasure map known only to Flint and eventually to crafty prisoner John Silver (Luke Arnold), who finds the map before Flint, then convinces Flint and crew to let him live.

That thrilling battle sequence opens the series with gusto, but it lasts about five minutes before giving way to hours of talk, talk, talk. Once Flint and crew dock at New Providence Island in the Bahamas, a smugglers' den run by Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), co-creators Jonathan Steinberg and Robert Levine focus on more scheming subplots than there are sails on a ship.

Eleanor, the former lover of Flint's nemesis, Capt. Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), now has a thing for the savvy prostitute Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy). But Max's plot with Silver to sell that secret treasure map to Vane conflicts with her lover's own plans. Eleanor has formed a partnership with Flint to find the map and treasure and make New Providence Island an independent entity, free from England's tyranny. Meanwhile Eleanor's father, black-market peddler Richard Guthrie (Sean Michael), has his own scheme to derail his daughter's plotting.

While its glimpses into the democratic world of piracy are interesting, "Black Sails" could cull a few plot barnacles and give viewers more action. And I don't mean more action in bed, or in the street, or in a sex tent on the beach (apparently pirates work up a sex drive shaving those barnacles). Cable TV is rife with sex and I wouldn't accuse "Black Sails" or having more than other shows. But these scenes work only when they help advance a larger story. Alternately explicit and brutal, the sex in "Black Sails" doesn't.

The series does offer some stirring performances, however. McGowan, who played Jody in Showtime's "Shameless," snarls convincingly as Vane, bringing the real-life pirate to TV life. Tom Hopper makes Billy Bones one of the few characters to root for, a likable but conflicted (and hunky) hero. New gives Eleanor the toughness and grit she'd need to survive in this man's world.

In the lead, Stephens brings instant credibility to Flint, who is heroic one minute and villainous the next, always trying to keep one step ahead of Vane, his own crew or anyone else on his heels.

"I'm not just going to make you rich," Flint tells his crew, hoping to avoid being voted off the island, so to speak. "I'm not just going to make you strong. I'm going to make you the princes of the New World!"

Whether Flint truly believes this or not remains to be seen. One thing is certain, though, with its promise of high seas hijinks unfulfilled half way through its eight-episode season, "Black Sails" is just as tricky and devious as Flint.

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