Black Sails: Michael Bay brings gritty pirate drama to Starz

Jack Sparrow wouldn’t last a minute onboard the Walrus.

For those who might fear that the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise may have forever Disney-fied the genre, Starz’s new drama Black Sails from executive producer Michael Bay will pillage that notion quickly. The rampant sex, foul language and violence — especially the violence — reflect a much harsher, and undoubtedly more realistic, portrait of life on the high seas in 1715.

Oh, and did I mention it’s also a prequel of sorts to Treasure Island?

The large cast of characters includes the likes of Capt. Flint (Toby Stephens), Billy Bones (Tom Hopper) and, yes, Long John Silver (Luke Arnold) about 20 years before Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure story. They are mixed in with historical figures like Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), Anne Bonny (Clara Paget), Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz) and Capt. Benjamin Hornigold (Patrick Lyster).

Much of the action takes place either aboard ships like Flint’s Walrus or on the island of Nassau in the Bahamas, a lawless territory where privateers go to have their ill-gotten goods fenced by a black market company run by Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New). Eleanor is conflicted by her obligations to run her family’s enterprise and the desire to pursue her forbidden love with local prostitute Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy).

While Black Sails, which has already been picked up for a second season, might sink a lot of pirate-story conventions, the main plot does center around something as traditional as a hidden treasure map. Allegiances change, motives remain murky and intrigue abounds, helping make the drama between the characters as captivating as all the swordplay and cannon firing on display.

Executive producer Jonathan Steinberg (Human Target) says he’s aware the extreme content on the show might be startling, but he feels it’s necessary to tell the story he and co-creator Robert Levine want to tell.

“You’ve seen pirates sink a ship before, and it’s almost always very sanitized,” he says. “You see the fight but you don’t see the aftermath. You don’t see that it’s scary, that these guys were probably drinking before they went over the side, or that the ones going over for the first time were terrified. They had to have been. In order to sell that, you need to make it visceral and the violence is a part of that. I think sex is a part of that, too. Part of the story we’re telling is this is a place on the fringes of civilization. It’s not even so much that it’s lawless as that the social norms are breaking down.”

Black Sails premieres at 9pm Saturday, Jan. 25, on Starz.

Black Sails Starz Zach McGowan Toby Stephens
Zach McGowan and Toby Stephens star in “Black Sails” © 2014 Starz Entertainment, LLC. Credit: Frank W Ockenfels