Not even Malkolvich’ing like a boss can save this mediocre tale of scheming pirate kings, action-hero British spies and comedy-relief monkey boys.
The legend of Blackbeard is generally well known. Edward Teach was the terror of the West Indies and Eastern American colonies in the early 1700s, relying on his fearsome reputation to threaten others rather than outright violence. In NBC’s romanticized version, Blackbeard has a white beard, but uses his wits more than his fist to get his way. He also sees ghosts, indulges in acupuncture and may be set up to be double crossed by his own people.
To make an actual story out of it, a magical device of advanced technology has been devised that will allow any ship at sea to determine its exact location. How this is supposed to wipe out piracy, I’ll never know. Only ships that stray off course get ransacked by pirates? Anyway, this bit of McGuffinry is placed on a ship, along with its inventor, his encrypted notes on how to build it and the key to breaking the code. Basically all the eggs in one basket with a big target painted on it – you’d think the mastermind who planned this would at least hold back one part so as not to lose it all if the mission goes sour, but you’d be wrong.
Blackbeard’s pirates predictably board the ship in search of the device, but who is there to save they day? Why the ship’s surgeon, of course. As you might imagine, he isn’t really a surgeon, but a British spy that apparently has any skill that may pose as a credible cover. He takes down many a pirate on his way to the cabin holding the one device that will make or break Blackbeard’s operations. Once inside he destroys the device, burns the instruction book and poisons the inventor. And then gets captured by the pirates.
Of course, this is all part of the plan. A flashback shows us that the Governor of Jamaica has placed this device on the ship explicitly to draw out Blackbeard. The true mission of our faux-surgeon, Mr. Lowe, is not to protect the device so much as to kill Blackbeard himself. Still, if the device does what it is designed to do, was it smart to put the only working prototype, the inventor, the inventor’s encrypted notes AND the encryption cypher all on the same ship?? No wonder they can’t get it together long enough to deal with Blackbeard, they can barely work out their own trap.
At least they have a quick thinking man of action in the form of Mr. Lowe, who is devoted to serving the Crown and fulfilling his mission. And that leads him to flirting with the beautiful and intelligent right-hand woman on Blackbeard’s island domain, Kate Balfour, who is responsible for cataloguing the haul off the captured British ship. She is also married to a cripple, so she must be fair game, right? The show drops a few hints in that direction.
We then get our first glimpse of Blackbeard (almost twelve minutes into the show!) He introduces himself to Lowe by slitting the throat of a captured British sailor. And this is where I have to laugh. This show desperately wants to compete with the limit-pushing sex and violence of basic cable shows, but it is still a broadcast network series. So while we do see the throat being split and blood beginning to spurt from the wound, the shot only lasts a split second. This is no Spartacus where blood pumped so furiously from gaping wounds that the splatter obscured the camera lens. Nice try, NBC, but either embrace the disturbing violence like you have with Hannibal or just stick to the bloodless violence you and the other big networks are known for.
Lowe and Blackbeard debate the intentions of the British Crown, the role of God in the universe and the values of Christianity. You know, pirate stuff. All joking aside, we see that they are both very quick thinking men who also have deep philosophical differences. This scene was well written and executed, showing that these men are intellectual equals though their morals are very far apart. Finally we cut to the chase. Blackbeard is keeping Lowe alive to keep the device’s inventor alive.
Blackbeard also hedges his bet by asking yet another lovely young associate of his, Salima, to try to decipher the instructions for building the device since they weren’t quite destroyed in the fire set by Lowe on the ship. Lowe stalls for time, but the inventor dies. Before Lowe can be hauled in front of Blackbeard and killed, he finds a cloth on the body of the inventor with the decryption key for the book. Honestly.
Sigh. He quickly memorizes it and then burns it. Now Blackbeard still needs him.
Lowe buys more time by dragging out the translation on the encrypted document and gets some expository banter with his frightened and generally witless assistant Fletch who Blackbeard appropriately dubs monkey boy. But Salima doesn’t like the competition and sends in her goons VikingPirate, AfricanLadyPirate and HammerPirate to beat the translation key out of Lowe. Monkey Boy McPlotDevice brings Blackbeard in to rescue Lowe.
Blackbeard then threatens Lowe directly telling him that if he doesn’t provide a translation immediately that Fletch will be the one that pays. Blackbeard explains that he understands physical torture won’t work with Lowe as Salima had planned. Blackbeard studies people and Lowe’s weakness is pride. If Fletch is tortured publicly and horrifically, and Lowe’s cowardice in not stopping it were it to be known, it would devastate Lowe. “And if anyone knows how to spread a legend, it is I,” Blackbeard tells Lowe in one of the few strong scenes in this show and a prime example of how Malkovich is its only saving grace.
Lowe knows he has to kill Blackbeard now or never. He breaks into the stores of the pirates to retrieve a poison and sweet talks his way past Kate Balfour. When he enters Blackbeard’s apparently unguarded chambers, the good pirate is engaged in…acupuncture. He gets horrible headaches and even worse visions (bloody ghosts!) Lowe offers him the encrypted book, a partial translation and the translation key along with a drink. Blackbeard, being no fool, drinks out of Lowe’s cup instead of his own while Lowe is forced to drink out of the cup of wine he prepared for the pirate king. Did Lowe’s only cleverness just cost him is life? Dum dum DUM! No, we see he poisoned not the wine, but the book and as Blackbeard reads it, he licks his fingers to turn the pages Name of the Rose-style.
Blackbeard falls deathly ill immediately while Lowe and Monkey Boy escape to find a conveniently-placed rowboat waiting for them to make their getaway now that the mission is complete. However, they overhear Salima meeting with an emissary from the King of Spain. Apparently, Blackbeard has bigger plans than just capturing the device. Lowe decides he needs to save Blackbeard to find out what the bigger plan is, though if he thought it through, whatever was in the works would likely die with Blackbeard himself. But he is determined to protect his monolithic and oppressive British Empire at all costs and rushes back to give Blackbeard the antidote.
In the coda meant to set up the rest of the season, Lowe goes skinny dipping with the feisty Kate Balfour (within sight of her crippled husband) and Blackbeard pronounces he doesn’t know what to make of Lowe yet so he will keep him around. But will it keep audiences around? It premiered fairly well for a summer series (originally meant to start after Grimm ended its season run, but was bumped by the amazeballs second season of Hannibal), but I predict the viewing levels will trail off if the stories don’t get markedly better.
The lead, played by Richard Coyle, is passable as daring action-adventure spy in colonial times, but we learn nothing of his past, how he came to be a colonial-era ass kicker or what motivates him to protect the clearly corrupt English Crown. The only things we learn are that he is prideful and lustful. Sounds like he would fit in with the pirates just fine, but other than an off-hand comment by Blackbeard to that effect, he is a one-dimensional Boy Scout.
The look of show is too bright and clean. This is a pirate town in the early 1700s, why do many of the scenes look like the sterile set of a soap opera? Where’s the grittiness of the era in the look and feel of how this show is shot? Spoiler: there isn’t any.
And that leaves only thing to tie all this together into something vaguely worth watching and that is John Malkovich’s measured performance. He veers between exasperated patience and intense, barely-held-back violence with the ease of an actor of his caliber. If only he had better material to work with. This series simply isn’t sea-worthy.