'Crossbones': Aaarrrr, this pirate drama is no treasure

A buccaneer in his dotage: John Malkovich is a semi-retired Blackbeard in the slow-moving "Crossbones."
A buccaneer in his dotage: John Malkovich is a semi-retired Blackbeard in the slow-moving "Crossbones." (FRANCISCO ROMAN /NBC)
Posted: May 30, 2014

We expected great things when NBC announced its pirate drama Crossbones would be written by British novelist and screenwriter Neil Cross ( Luther) and would star the great American thesp John Malkovich as legendary pirate Edward "Blackbeard" Teach.

That's the trouble with having high hopes - it hurts so much more when they're dashed.

Premiering Friday at 10 p.m., the 10-episode series, set during Blackbeard's more mature, graying years, is too sedentary to be called an action story. And, despite its lurid, bloody violence, it is far too flat and uneventful to be called a thriller.

Nor is Crossbones particularly original - its themes and plot devices are virtually identical to this year's other pirate drama, Starz's far better-produced Black Sails.

Both are set in the early decades of the 18th century in an independent pirate community on the Bahamian island of New Providence. And both tell the story of how the outlaw town struggled to survive in the shadow of England's imperial reach.

Richard Coyle ( Coupling) stars as Tom Lowe, an English spy sent to find and assassinate Blackbeard. For reasons both tactical and personal, he decides to let the dude live.

In Malkovich's hands, Blackbeard speaks with a ridiculous accent - half Oscar Wilde aesthete, half working-class Cockney - and seems equally excited to conduct theological discussions or to stick his fingers into a man's throat after slicing it open.

Retired from the sea, Blackbeard oversees the town and its thriving economy. That is, when he's not sticking acupuncture needles in his shaven pate to ward off migraines and epileptic fits.

The first three episodes are devoted to the growing man-crush between young spy and aging pirate. Supplied by Cross with poetic, Shakespearean dialogue, Coyle and Malkovich play off each other brilliantly. It's clear they're having great fun on-set, and it is infectious.

But their relationship can't quite save this aimless story.


TV REVIEW

Crossbones

10 p.m. Friday on NBC10


tirdad@phillynews.com

215-854-2736

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