John Malkovich as a low-talking, pajama-wearing Col. Kurtzian Blackbeard is certainly the main draw of NBC's new pirate drama, "Crossbones," but he's not the only attraction.
Slipstreaming the more hyper-paced and R-rated "Black Sails" on Starz, "Crossbones" may have a similar conceit — pirates are people too! — but its narrative ambitions are a bit loftier, driven more by character than plot. The series premieres Friday.
FOR THE RECORD:
"Crossbones": A May 30 Calendar section review of the new NBC series "Crossbones" did not list all the show's creators. In addition to Neil Cross, James V. Hart and Amanda Welles are also credited with creating the program.
There's plenty of plot to go around, of course. On top of the requisite scenes of vessel capturing, avoiding the British navy and general pirate revelry, there's also an uber-narrative about the longitude chronometer, seen here as a newly invented and near-magical device that will change navigation and apparently end piracy forever.
There's so much plot, in fact, that it more than occasionally overwhelms what is clearly the heart of creator Neil Cross' tale: the surprisingly hypnotic game of psychological cat and mouse played by Blackbeard and the man who has been sent to kill him. That would be Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle), super-agent of the Royal Navy who enters our story posing as a ship's doctor.
Upon first glance, Lowe appears to be protecting the much-coveted chronometer and its inventor from the cutthroat gang boarding their ship. In reality, he has been charged by the governor of Jamaica (Julian Sands) with assassinating Blackbeard. Believed by many to be dead, the scourge of the seven seas is in fact living high as commodore of a gorgeous and conveniently uncharted island populated by pirates, prostitutes and assorted colorful fugitives from justice.
These include Blackbeard's beautiful and brilliant companion, Selima (Yasmine Al Massri), the lovely British noblewoman Kate Balfour (Claire Foy) and her crippled, opium-addicted husband. One glance from Kate's baby blues as she oversees division of the latest plunder and seeds of doubt are sown in Lowe's heart.
Is this the nexus of depravity he has been led to believe? Nor is Blackbeard quite what he expected. Bald with a silver goatee, he prefers Commodore to his legendary moniker and speaks softly of many things, including Lowe's horrific fate should he fail to aid in the rebuilding of the chronometer.
It's a silly enough pretense for keeping Lowe alive long enough for him to reconsider, for many also rather clunky reasons, his original murderous mission, but the scenes between the men are affecting enough to justify forgiveness. With the most menacing enunciation this side of Alan Rickman, Malkovich slowly, carefully builds a man out of a monster.
In baroque dialogue allowed the luxury of paragraphing, he spars with Lowe on the power and necessity of God, murder and freedom while occasionally slicing jugulars and battling migraines that bring on eerie visions. Like Billy Bob Thornton in "Fargo," Malkovich is clearly having a very good time. It certainly adds to the enjoyment, but his Blackbeard is more wearily determined than delighted with whatever master plan he has up his linen sleeve. His facets may be many, but if the first three episodes are any indication, they will not be predictable.
Thankfully, Coyle more than holds his own in these scenes, making Lowe at least as vibrant, if not quite as interesting, as Blackbeard. Being the hero of the piece, Lowe is a good man before he is a soldier, and of course he will fall for the equally conflicted Kate, creating a relationship that will further test his loyalty to the Crown.
But as he circles Blackbeard, Lowe projects an objectivity that is refreshing to see on television, with its penchant for primary-colored sentiment and/or cynicism.
The plots that spin around the two main characters unfortunately suffer by comparison. There is the inevitable brothel filled with well-fed and self-respecting working gals and a coterie of pirates, including a sullen pseudo son, Charlie (David Hoflin), and the requisite female, Nenna (Tracy Ifeachor). Lowe too has a sidekick, a callow youth called Fletch (Chris Perfetti) who is there to conveniently discover useful information or look shocked as required.
Still, the settings are gorgeous, the sex and violence PG-13 (after seasons of spilled entrails, I cannot be the only person longing for the Errol Flynn school of bloodless sword fighting), and there is something undeniably bracing about a jaunt on the high seas.
But in all honestly, "Crossbones" is all about Blackbeard being John Malkovich.
When: 10 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for violence)