Comic-Con 2013: “Black Sails” screening

As promoters dressed in full pirate garb — ranging from Jack Sparrow wannabes to some who looked like Captain Morgan mascots who had mistakenly wandered in from a neighboring bar — peppered the crowd with the constant, loud refrain of “BLACK SAILS!!!” the crowd at San Diego’s Reading Cinemas anxiously awaited a unique world premiere event.

Not only was the crowd of about 400 going to see the first episode of Starz’s highly anticipated pirate series Black Sails — with several cast members and producers on hand — but there was an extra surprise as well. Set up in front of the screen was a small row of musical instruments, all ready for a performance of the Black Sails theme and other musical cues from Emmy-nominated composer Bear McCreary. Dude played a hurdy gurdy. File that under “only at Comic-Con.” What made the performance even more special is that the episode — which is not set to air until January — did not include the main theme as of yet, so this was the first time anyone anywhere had heard it. I’d feel safe in saying it’s going to take its place comfortably among his work for Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, Da Vinci’s Demons and others.

Executive producer Jonathan Steinberg set the scene, saying he and co-executive producer Robert Levine set out to make a more historically accurate view of the pirate world, something to contrast all that swashbuckling and “avast ye mateys” that have come to dominate the perception. That said, the story works almost as a prequel to Treasure Island, picking up the story of a younger Long John Silver, along with other pirates from history and fiction. But those with fond memories of Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal adventure should be prepared to see such characters in a decidedly TV-MA story. Lots of blood, a few dashes of nudity (you know, because Starz), and heaps of violence.

As for the show itself, it’s apparent right away that Black Sails is made with a feature-film mentality. It’s not surprising the high seas adventure looks great, being a Michael Bay product, but thankfully it uses the bombastic director’s (who serves as executive producer) strengths without his tiresome camera tricks and cardboard characterizations.

The opening pirate raid of a naval ship is unlike any similar scene from the days of Errol Flynn, and would no doubt make Gilbert and Sullivan blush. The action is fierce and intensely violent, told from the perspective of those being raided, characters whose fear is palpable. Then the switch from the most hostile of takeovers to the matter-of-fact business at hand of taking the ship’s inventory, recruiting its crew … this is where Black Sails separates itself from other pirate tales. These are, in an oversized sense, businessmen, drawn to a way of life through various hard-luck stories, rebelling against a society they feel has left them no other option.

There is no romance to this way of life, only hard truths of earning money and staying alive. A large cast of characters emerges, none of them clear heroes or villains, just players doing what they feel they must to improve their lots in life. There’s the vaguely aristocratic Captain Flynn (Toby Stephens), a former golden boy who has run into a slew of bad luck; Banks (Mark Ryan), a more competent Smee to Flynn’s Captain Hook, acting as a trusted adviser; Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), a rogue looking to become the next big thing in piracy; Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a prostitute who sees an opportunity to move beyond the brothel; John Silver (Luke Arnold), a much more charming (and pragmatic) version of the Treasure Island character); and many more.

Being on Starz, audiences may be expecting an over-the-top extravaganza along the lines of Spartacus, and Bay’s involvement may lead one to fear they’re getting Transformers at Sea. But Black Sails is far more grounded, delivering all the genre goods of swordplay and other forms of derring-do, while making sure that we actually care who might have to walk the plank.