Plot: The British government sends undercover agent Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle) to infiltrate the world of the dreaded pirate Blackbeard (John Malkovich). Lowe must win the trust of the famed pirate by decoding a cypher which will help Blackbeard rebuild a longitude machine that’ll change the face of navigation. However, Lowe’s job is more than just to gain the confidence of Blackbeard, his job is to end the life of the most famous pirate of them all.
Let’s be honest with each other for a minute — neither you nor I had high hopes for Crossbones. Think about it, a high gloss pirate drama that’s debuting at 10pm on a Friday night during one of the slowest times in the television season. Sounds like this show was strung up on the gallows before it was even given a chance to air.
Yet, surprisingly, Crossbones is actually a very entertaining series. It’s in no way perfect, but given its graveyard time slot and the fact pirates aren’t the draw they once were, it’s a pleasant surprise to find this show highly engaging throughout its 60 minute run.
Or, is it surprising?
Let’s look at the pedigree of Crossbones. The show is developed by Neil Cross (who also wrote the pilot), the man behind the award-winning BBC series Luther, which has found a nice home in syndication on BBC America and has scored Idris Elba a slew of acting awards. The pilot episode is directed by David Slade, one of the producers and regular directors for the brilliant NBC series Hannibal. And then you have the star of the show, John Malkovich. The man is as charismatic (and sometimes over the top) as they get and his “worst” he’s still entertaining.
Put those three elements together, combine them with a blockbuster production value and you’ve got yourselves a pretty good series on paper. Luckily, in the pilot, the execution of the writing, direction and acting clicks on all cylinders. The tension Slade employs throughout the episode is reminiscent of his better work on Hannibal and the plot is a lot more intelligent and multi-layered than one would expect.
One could worry that the multi-layered plot might get too convoluted and confusing, which is a distinct possibility. Any time you employ espionage and traitors in a drama, the chance for things getting overly-complicated. However, one has to have faith in Cross and the writing team. They have a proven track record, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for now.
As the star of the series, Malkovich dominates the show and in the best way possible. He paints Blackbeard as this wonderfully verbose and violent character that walks the line between benevolent lord and malevolent mad man. Malkovich makes this version of Blackbeard anything but your typical “Arr me buck-o” type of pirate. The series gives Malkovich a lot to work with — in the pilot they hint at the pirate’s disdain for the British government, his possible descent into madness and his desire rule the seas once again. Malkovich takes all of this and teases audiences that there’s so much more to Blackbeard.
Richard Coyle does a fine job as Blackbeard’s friend/adversary, Thomas Lowe. Coyle has a Russell Crowe air about him — gruff and action-ready yet still eloquent and quick-witted. He’s a hero that definitely holds his own against the much more charismatic villain.
Crossbones is a fun adventure/thriller series that has a lot of promise. The pilot was impressive and we’ll be tuning in next week, but we’re not 100% sold that this series will not fall into the deadly trappings of overwriting and overacting. Again, based on the promise from the pilot and the pedigree of the cast and crew, one has a lot of hope that this will not happen and that Crossbones will become a treasure in this rather barren television season.