Comparisons between Crossbones, NBC’s umpteenth attempt at launching a successful series this season, and Black Sails, another pirate-themed show over on Starz, are inevitable. And Black Sails has Crossbones beat in every respect. It’s sharper, grittier, more compelling and certainly sexier (you won’t be seeing any steamy, R-rated hookups on NBC, that’s for sure). Still, there are worse ways to spend a Friday night than watching John Malkovich bite into the role of Blackbeard with theatrical, bizarrely-accented gusto on Crossbones. Make no mistake – Malkovich is the main attraction, and in many ways the sole attraction, of Crossbones.
So, is he enough? Is Crossbones worth tuning in for? The answer is that it’s still too early to tell – but early signs in “The Devil’s Dominion” aren’t promising. Though Malkovich is clearly relishing his part, and he’s hamming it up in a way that’s pretty damn entertaining at times, the rest of the show is bone-dry.
That extends to the actual star of Crossbones, who is not actually Blackbeard but Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle), a British physician and spy for the crown. On a mission to kill Blackbeard, Lowe likes to think of himself as the smartest man in the room and, throughout the pilot, demonstrates a vast knowledge of MacGyver-style medical care, code-breaking and just about everything else that was known to mankind in the 18th century. Coyle is a better comedic actor (check out his hysterical work on Coupling) than he is a dramatic one, but the reason Lowe doesn’t quite work as a lead is more due to a lack of characterization. Crossbones‘ creator and writer, Neil Cross, was previously behind Luther, one of the finest crime dramas in recent memory, which makes it all the more peculiar that Lowe is so thinly written. Subsequent episodes will likely give him greater depth, but the Lowe seen the pilot isn’t nearly interesting enough to carry the show.
As Crossbones opens, Lowe is serving as a surgeon on the HMS Petrel when pirates capture the ship. Their takeover is the pilot’s first main action sequence, but despite the impressive production values, it’s filmed in such a strangely lifeless way that robs it of excitement. After a poorly placed flashback to fill in the blanks, we learn that Lowe’s mission to kill Blackbeard involves using a navigational device called a chronometer, which would essentially make Blackbeard invincible on the high seas, as bait. When the ship is taken, Lowe destroys the device and kills its creator, leaving him as the only one with the know-how to translate a cipher necessary for the creation of a new chronometer. He’s taken to a small island where Blackbeard, thought by the world to be long-dead, has established a pirate society. Soon, Lowe is brought before the pirate, who assigns him to break the code – a task Lowe only agrees to in hopes of getting a chance to kill Blackbeard.
“The Devil’s Dominion” wastes no time introducing its supporting cast, though some characters seem better formed than others. Kate (Claire Foy), the fearless and beautiful head of trade for the island, is being positioned as a love interest for Lowe, and Foy’s charismatic portrayal makes her one of the show’s strongest traits. The same can’t be said for Lowe’s sidekick Fletch (Chris Perfetti), who whines incessantly and drags the show down in doing so.
In the end, however, Blackbeard and Lowe are the only two characters who are going to matter on Crossbones. “They’re two sharks circling each other,” Kate says at one point, and that certainly appears to be what the show is going for. Neil Cross excels in crafting the back-and-forth between the pair, giving Blackbeard some unusual but appealing philosophical depth. “Here’s my creed: I suspect that God is a clockmaker – he wound creation up and now he sits back and watches it unwind,” he tells Lowe. A master of chaos, he has constructed his island as a paradise free of British influence. “I am not the devil, Mr. Lowe, I have cast out the devil,” he explains.Next
Lowe, representative of everything Blackbeard hates, is made to understand that he’s merely tolerated on the island, but he has snark of his own for the pirate. Their dance is short-lived, however, seeing as Lowe manages to successfully poison Blackbeard on his first try. Lowe is fleeing with Fletch, ready to dash off in a rowboat, when the two randomly witness a beachside meeting between a high-ranking Spanish official and the pirates. In a particularly unconvincing piece of dialogue, Lowe realizes that an attack on Britain is imminent and he must stick around to prevent it. So, he dashes back to Blackbeard’s side, slipping him an antidote and tricking the pirate into believing that he should be thanking Lowe instead of hanging him.
That twist is handled quite poorly and distracts from the main battle between Lowe and Blackbeard – it appears that Crossbones is aiming to put the two on the same team, though watching Malkovich and Coyle face off is really the only fun to be had in the pilot. Neil Cross did himself no favors with writing on this episode. Lowe’s success in poisoning his foe undermines Blackbeard’s status as an all-powerful, teeth-gnashing big bad for the show, but Spanish militarymen are far less interesting enemies for Lowe to combat.
Looking at Crossbones as a whole, the show has a few things going for it. First and foremost in that category is Malkovich – he’s a terrific actor, and his Blackbeard is very fun to watch. The marketing team was smart to focus almost exclusively on him, as he’ll be what audiences keep coming back for. Coyle, too, could be a good lead if his character is made more interesting – the actor is certainly not bad in the role, though he may be a tough sell to American audiences. The strong production values, which do an excellent job of selling the show’s 1729 setting, are also a plus for Crossbones.
That brings us to where the show falls short. The writing is weak in the pilot, and it will have to improve quite a lot for it to remain watchable. The unlikable supporting character of Fletch is also a problem, though admittedly a lesser one. The biggest offender, oddly, is the camerawork. Crossbones wants to be received as a jaunty pirate caper, complete with swashbuckling action and political intrigue, but the flat, dull way in which every scene is shot works to squeeze the life from it.
The weirdest thing about Crossbones, though, is that for a primetime network show, it’s shockingly ill-crafted to sustain itself through multiple seasons. The battle of wits between Blackbeard and Lowe is already over in some ways, with Lowe as the clear winner, and having the protagonist waste an entire season translating a code for the pirate would send the show’s credibility completely out the window.
So, where Crossbones is going next is still uncertain. The show has a lot of flaws, some of which are pretty glaring. Malkovich’s performance is what will have to carry it going forward, and though the next episode, “The Covenant,” will hopefully establish how the show can sustain itself, “The Devil’s Dominion” doesn’t have Crossbones off to a very promising start.