'Black Sails' on Starz: Pirate saga scenic but slow

Anthony Bishop (left) as Singleton, Toby Stephens as Captain Flint. The series has real historical pirates and "Treasure Island" pirates.
Anthony Bishop (left) as Singleton, Toby Stephens as Captain Flint. The series has real historical pirates and "Treasure Island" pirates. (KEITH BERNSTEIN)
Posted: January 26, 2014

Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) is readying his men to make the biggest score of the century. The 18th century.

Return with us now to the barnacled high-water mark for piracy, when merchant ships plied the Spanish Main at their peril.

Black Sails (9 p.m. Saturday on Starz) is a bawdy, bodacious, and brutal eight-episode series set on the island of New Providence (the Bahamas) in 1715.

It may take you a while to figure out who's who in this big, sunburned ensemble, so allow me to give you a head start.

Cocreators Jonathan Steinberg and Robert Levine have peopled their yarn with a mix of historical pirates (Capt. Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny), characters from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (Billy Bones, Flint, John Silver), and their own creations.

At the center of it all is the foul-mouthed Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), the primary fence and provisioner for the pirates in the region. Eleanor's roaring bar/bordello is one-stop shopping for your thirsty, lonely scavenger. That description doesn't begin to do justice to her crazed clientele.

The buccaneers, as you might expect, are a motley crew. The most colorful has to be Rackham (Toby Schmitz). With his glam-punk look, he appears to be a refugee from the band Adam and the Ants. Wait until he breaks out his ultra-chic sunglasses in Episode 3.

His captain, Vane (Zach McGowan), with his sandy dreadlocks and a cigarillo dangling from his lip, resembles a grizzled veteran of Burning Man.

They're all afraid of Bonny (Clara Paget), a cold-blooded killer who doesn't say much, just glowers from beneath the brim of her hat pulled low over her eyes. Then there's the sly Silver (Luke Arnold), who has great Antonio Banderas hair, but is about a foot short of anyone referring to him as Long John.

The scenery, the spectacle, the set design, the costuming, and the camera work are all winning, but the pacing of the series (which is planned for a second 10-episode season) is nettlesomely slow.

The drag is caused by a surfeit of plot, intrigue, backstory, and colonial politics, all of it transpiring on dry ground. This is a novelty for a Michael Bay production. No one has ever accused the Transformers titan of subtlety before.

If you're one of those landlubbers who savors atmosphere, congratulations. Black Sails is loaded to the gunwales with it. If you're more action-oriented, you'll soon find yourself shouting at the screen, "Less talking, more cannon fire."


TV REVIEW

Black Sails

9 p.m. Saturday on Starz


dhiltbrand@phillynews.com

215-854-4552 @daveondemand_tv

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