'Crossbones' premiere leaves us feeling a bit adrift

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Image Credit: Francisco Roman/NBC

The premiere episode of NBC’s swashbuckling Crossbones, which stars John Malkovich as the pirate Blackbeard, had enough slit throats for a slow episode of Game of Thrones but wasn’t as sharply scripted. It’s a pity, because the premise is promising.

Assassin Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle) is tasked with posing as a ship’s surgeon so he can accompany the inventor of a Longitude Chronometer to London, where the man is expected to present the device — which allows ships to calculate their precise location while at sea — to the king. Knowing Blackbeard will try to intercept the chronometer, the governor of Jamaica (a wild-haired Julian Sands) gives Lowe his real assignment: Kill Blackbeard. Was it clever to reveal that order after we watched pirates attack, Lowe destroy the device, poison the inventor, and singe the cipher so he would be brought to Blackbeard’s island to keep the maker alive? Yes. But it also meant the episode made us wait 12 minutes until Malkovich spoke a line and formally introduced himself by slashing a man’s neck.

The action sequences will never be able to compete with what cable audiences are used to. Lead with your strength, and that’s Malkovich playing eccentric (like saying, “You send me a boy? That’s novel” when Lowe’s squire Fletch, played by Chris Perfetti, interrupts Blackbeard’s orgy) or spewing a vitriolic monologue without a breath (like when he’s threatening someone or talking politics). I wonder if they ever thought about opening the series with Blackbeard having a conversation while having all those acupuncture needles in his skull. Yes, Lowe would need to see them eventually so he could claim it was Blackbeard’s illness that had the Commodore, as he prefers to be called, on his deathbed floor later, but that image would’ve grabbed you.

I did enjoy seeing Lowe scramble to keep himself necessary after the inventor died. My favorite twist was the actual assassination attempt. Coyle had me convinced I’d seen a Princess Bride ripoff – Blackbeard takes the glass Lowe had poured for himself – but then we learned Lowe had put the poison on the pages of the cypher, which he knew Blackbeard would read. (I’m sure that’s been done before, too.) How the show continues: Lowe and Fitch rather conveniently spy the pirates conspiring with the crown’s sworn enemy, the Spanish, as they’re making their escape. For his country’s sake, Lowe has to go back and save Blackbeard so he can learn why.

The show does a good job casting women as something other than prostitutes. Blackbeard’s lady-love/riddle-solver Selima (Yasmine Al Massri) has already proven herself shady and willing to go rogue, while fugitive Kate (Claire Foy) is in charge of Blackbeard’s booty and, it would appear, stealing Lowe’s heart even though she’s married. Clearly Lowe’s going to develop a respect — or at least a sympathy — for Blackbeard and feelings for Kate, which will increase the tension as we wait for them to all betray each other.

A few final thoughts: Do men on Black Sails reveal their calves as much as these guys do? Do we want more melodramatic dialogue like the governor of Jamaica’s “Go to the arms of your degenerate god, you unfathered bitch!” after he stabbed and hanged a guy for not telling him where Blackbeard is? Don’t you kinda wish the show was creepier after seeing Blackbeard’s vision of the lady in white bleeding from her eyes? Neil Cross, who created Crossbones, was so wonderful at creating creepy suspense with Luther. If you saw season 3 of that Idris Elba show, you understand what I mean when I say I sometimes still check under my bed. I want Crossbones to feel that riveting. It’s not there yet.

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