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Review: 'Black Sails' is a pirate treasure

EntertainmentMoviesLiteratureArts and CultureReviewsToby StephensJericho (tv program)

Something in us loves a pirate. Of all the world's brigands, the pirate is the most romantic, the one whose way of life represents a breezy alternative to our drudging own. What child does not know how many men sit on a dead man's chest?

They have been in the movies at least since D.W. Griffith's "The Pirate's Gold" in 1906, and you lately may have felt the franchise that is "Pirates of the Caribbean" brush your shoulder as it made its way through the marketplace. There has been the occasional TV movie, as well, but a full-fledged pirate series has been long in coming. And now we are going to have two of them, in short order.

The second of these, NBC's "Crossbones," with John Malkovich as the historical Blackbeard, is still off on the horizon. Closer to shore is "Black Sails," created by Jonathan E. Steinberg ("Jericho") and Robert Levine ("Human Target"), with Michael Bay (big, noisy action films) as an executive producer. It has its little faults, but the characters are vivid, the actors excellent, the sunshine pleasant and the story is never as obvious as sometimes it seems about to become. It drops anchor Saturday on Starz.

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There are historical pirates in "Black Sails" too: Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), number 17 in a 2008 Forbes list of top-earning buccaneers of the past; his quartermaster, John Rackham (Toby Schmitz), himself later a captain of dark renown; and the female pirate Anne Bonny (Clara Paget). But they consort here with some famous pirates of fiction — for this is a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," the novel that taught us everything we think we know about life under the Jolly Roger.

There are good pirates and bad pirates here, or bad pirates and worse ones, by contemporary standards of polite society. Not surprisingly, the real pirates are less lovable than the invented ones, and those are even nicer than they were in the book.

Rangy Toby Stephens (the son of Maggie Smith, with something of her crisp grandeur) plays the semi-heroic John Flint, captain of the Walrus; he's a dreamer, he's a schemer, and he's got a line on the biggest haul ever. With his share he seeks to found and defend an agrarian utopia where "civilization," whose coming he can smell like salt on the sea air, cannot touch him. We know how that turned out.

"They're not animals," he says of his crew (who are better behaved than Vane's). "They're men starved of hope; give that back to them, who's to say what could happen."

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And there is John Silver (Luke Arnold), naturally, not yet "Long," at the very beginning of his pirate career, but already getting in the way; he is the appointed scamp here, cheerfully sociopathic comic relief and as such very much of a type. And there is the boatswain Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), who will come plodding to the Admiral Benbow Inn at the opening of "Treasure Island"; here, along with Flint's admirably levelheaded quartermaster, Mr. Gates (Mark Ryan), he is a voice of conscience.

While the series, which opens with a ship being boarded and taken, does have its moments of big, noisy action (see: Michael Bay, above), it spends a lot of time on land, as well, with the main characters taking care of business, making plans, laying traps and working on their surprisingly complicated personal relationships.

There is also, tedious to relate, an abundance of female nudity, so drearily expected by now that one imagines a Standards & Practices department whose job it is to ensure that not 15 minutes go by without a bare breast or buttock. There is an attempt to write this off by making all the female characters with speaking parts — including Bonny and big-time fence Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) — tough and self-directed, a match for the men in everything but muscle mass. But a lot of it is just "The Girls of 'Black Sails.'"

Other than that, "Black Sails'" depiction of daily life among the pirates is plausibly authentic and workaday, and the Nassau through which they roam feels real and well-peopled. These things draw you in as much as the slow-blooming intrigue. It is like a floating "Deadwood" in its depiction of a functioning society outside the law, where to live you must be (after a fashion) honest.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Black Sails'

Where: Starz

When: 9 and 10:10 p.m. Saturday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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EntertainmentMoviesLiteratureArts and CultureReviewsToby StephensJericho (tv program)
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