It’s historical fiction. That is, it’s fiction that draws on reality, real events, places, and people, and mixes them together with purely imagined events, places, and people. At first, it presents itself as a prequel to the events of Treasure Island, a completely fictional novel. By the end, it presents itself as if it were a show of the real-world events which provided the inspiration for Treasure Island, as if the book were actually historical fiction. It’s a most interesting twist.
And that is the least fascinating aspect of Black Sails.
Pirates of the Caribbean revitalized the popularity of pirates in mainstream entertainment, and Black Sails absolutely capitalizes on that, and brilliantly. However, while the former still depicts its characters rigidly as good or evil, the latter plays with every subtlety of such, and of humanity, it can get its hands on. The result is an intricate, nuance, riveting, even compelling narrative that defies simpler explanations and challenges its audience to not just enjoy it, but to think about it.
Even just saying what the show about is not so simple. It chronicles the saga of Nassau, a renowned and infamous pirate town, as the gears of the world come bearing down on it. It tells the story of the relationships among famous pirate figures, which drive these momentous events. It depicts the mighty changing of an era in blood and fire, love and lust and loss, hope and despair and defiance. It examines the nature of humanity, of civilization, of freedom, even of stories and storytelling, and more. It tells of fortunes which rise and fall as surely as the tides upon the shore and the waves upon the sea, and yet, one never knows, until its over, just where everything will fall.
It’s quite the epic voyage.
And the ones who set the course on that voyage are the characters. This is an extremely character-driven story, and they are all wonderful. As we get to know them, we see their finer points, and while this does not always excuse what they do, it does explain it. They are all dedicated to something, be it the pride of the strong, or the prosperity of the rich, the freedom of those who refuse to bow, revenge upon an unjust system, the nobility of loyalty, the base goal of survival, or any number of things. These motivations are not so simple as in most stories, as people are not so simple in real life, but they are understandable, even admirable in their way. It makes it easy to love them, to enjoy their company, and this enhances the impact when they suffer, or die, or betray, or are betrayed, or are saved, or emerge triumphant from a dire situation.
With such complex, lovable characters, there is an equally complex, lovable plot, with complex themes, beautiful settings, realistic violence, sensual scenes of intimacy, and more, more, more.
In regards to that last, the violence and the sex, it must be said, the show is very graphic in its content. I’m not sure what annoyed me more: how explicit and tasteless it was, or how needless it was. One can argue that the depiction of violence serves a purpose, but the sex and nudity really don’t. It was a bit distracting, really, and annnoying, and tiring, and… really, distasteful. There was no grace to it. I know that the show was delving into human nature and such, but plenty of stories do that without pornographic nudity.
That would be my biggest complaint against the show. One can deal with it as one wishes, but it’s a good example of an instance where I would have loved to be able to censor what I was watching, just a bit.
Outside that, it’s generally very enjoyable. I know I’ve spoken mostly in generalities, but I fear that for me to speak in more explicit terms, in so brief a span as this review, would not only spoil things unnecessarily, but simply fail to do justice to it all as well.
In the end, if you enjoy high seas adventure and action, if you don’t mind the realistic violence and tragic death, if you appreciate intrigue and a bit of philosophy, and if you can look past the less tasteful content which comes up now and again, then Black Sails may be for you.
Rating: 9 stars out of 10.