Who: “Crossbones,” aired on network TV, specifically on NBC, from May 30 through August 2, 2014.
What: “Crossbones,” a historical adventure drama based on a book called “The Republic of Pirates” by Colin Woodard, wherein Edward Teach, otherwise known as the famous pirate Blackbeard (John Malkovich), has set up a colony and would be utopia far from the crown that seeks to bring him to justice for his former murderous, pirating ways – though the colony is not as far from royal reach as he would like.
When: The series finale aired on NBC on August 2, 2014. “Crossbones” was canceled after one season.
Where: The action is set in and around what is presumably the Caribbean in the year 1729.
Why: In scouting pilots and catching up on entertainment news, I read about this show quietly being introduced by NBC for their 2014 summer programming as an “event series.” I was immediately intrigued because a) I love pirates (thanks, Johnny Depp), and b) John Malkovich is an amazing chameleon of an actor who always brings a certain level of gravitas to each role that he plays. I decided to see if the show lived up to its apparent street cred. Little did I know that this particular series was an embattled one that took two years to get to air, only to be canceled prior to the end of its run.
How – as in How Was It?
The pilot/premiere/first-time viewing rating scale:
***** – I HAVE TO WATCH EVERYTHING. HOLY SMOKES!
**** – Well, it certainly seems intriguing. I’m going to keep watching, but I see possible pitfalls in the premise.
*** – I will give it six episodes and see what happens. There are things I like, and things I don’t. We’ll see which “things” are allowed to flourish.
** – I will give it three episodes. Chances are, I’m mainly bored, but there is some intrigue or fascination that could hold it together. No matter how unlikely.
* – Pass on this one, guys. It’s a snoozer/not funny/not interesting/not my cup of tea… there are too many options to waste time on this one.
Crossbones = **1/2
Edward Teach (Malkovich), known to the world as the infamous pirate Blackbeard, is in hiding, fashioning a utopia after his own idealism on an island far from British rule. He styles himself the self-proclaimed “commodore” of this society, which is principled largely on free trade and free rule, neither of which was available as a subject of the Crown back in 1729. Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle), a surgeon, appears on the island, appealing to be the resident medic to the ever suspicious Teach; however, it is apparent from very early on that Mr. Lowe has another agenda: the assassination and/or capture of Blackbeard. Lowe, however, finds himself taken in by Teach’s ideals. Other complications also affect the society, not the least of which is the watchful eye of spies for the Crown and some of its more headstrong residents, including trade merchant Kate Balfour (Claire Foy).
Because the total number of episodes for the entire series was nine, I bent my “two to three star” rule and watched the whole series, particularly because even as I wavered about whether or not to continue watching it, something inevitably and always drew me back in to doing so. In fact, in this viewer’s most succinct review and estimation of this series, Crossbones was a highly uneven show that had much going for it but also suffered from just as much undermining its success. Still, at the end, there was something oddly hypnotic about it. I could spend the first half hour of an episode lamenting my decision to watch yet another installment of the already canceled series but then spend the second half hour completely engaged by what I was seeing in the episode itself.
Let’s start with what worked about Crossbones.
First, the production values were pretty remarkable for a television show. The art direction, particularly the set dressing and properties that made up Teach’s bed chambers, was quite impressive, and there was a fun battle scene between warring many-sailed ships near the end of the series. The cinematography was also well done, capturing on-location tropical settings in ways that truly engaged and immersed the viewer in this world of pirates and cutthroats. As a result, this viewer thought that the look of the show, from opening titles to end credits, was beautiful in its own right.
Second, Richard Coyle as Tom Lowe was easily the most likable of any of the performers. His character was the best developed, but he also brought a charisma to his role that everyone else, even Malkovich, lacked. Inevitably, it was his mutability as Lowe that kept me watching most, even as the story structure meandered and floundered around him, devolving into nebulous loose ends and unstructured frayed edges.
Third, the concept itself was intriguing, even if the concept was not executed in a fashion that ultimately sustained the series or viewer interest in it (mine and others’ alike). In other words, the book provided a solid basis by which to tell a story, and this story, of Blackbeard’s later years and his ego mixed with his ideals, provided a great foundation for potential storytelling and performances. Unfortunately, the screen writers did not translate their source material well, or the editors made a few too many cuts by the time the show aired.
What didn’t work with Crossbones was more than enough to be disappointed by the overall product. First, there is Malkovich’s underwhelming performance. While his gruff and stern visage, normally ideal for the offbeat character roles that made him famous, rendered him a good physical candidate for the legendary pirate, his line delivery was frequently monotone if not menacing, and he affected an accent that landed somewhere in the middle of American and English without being either, which ultimately distracted from more than informed the character. His repartee with Coyle and their scenes together ultimately proved to be the most compelling to watch, but Malkovich’s execution of certain emotions or shades thereof awkwardly straddled a line of too ham-fisted to be subtle and too subtle to be ham-fisted. He was not as formidable as I would have liked, and his portrayal of the character lacked depth, but for the words of ideals in which he purportedly believed, except when the same rules did not benefit him.
The character of Blackbeard in Crossbones was intelligent and nuanced, but whether directed to do so or whether the actor made the choice, Malkovich failed to render Blackbeard to be anything equal to his legend – he was neither hero, nor antihero, nor true villain. This Blackbeard was ego above all else, which informed his relationships with everyone and everything, but also served to distance and disconnect the character, at least from the viewer, bereft of the imposition and imprint with which such a character might otherwise leave the viewer. I wanted to like him. Or, I wanted to hate him. Most of the time, I felt indifferent to him – which this viewer does not believe was intended – and this pervasive indifference, even apathy, toward the main character rendered the series quite boring at times and for lengthy periods.
What’s more, the writers in general were no help, and this viewer cannot ascertain whether the failings of the writing were due to shoddy adaptation work or an overall flaw of the original source material. The dialogue was intelligent and contemplative – particularly between the two leading men, and the combination of Malkovich and Coyle chewing the scenery was fun more often than not – but the story structure fell apart quickly. First, there was some question as to what story the show was actually trying to tell: was it an intimate portrayal of a misunderstood brigand? A study in governance neither democracy nor monarchy? The pitfalls of becoming embroiled and involved with a man too smart for his own peers but not smart enough to live life in a meaningful way? Also, there were distracting sidebars that were far less interesting than any story centered on Edward Teach, which frequently left this viewer marveling after bloated, weighty episodes.
The love triangle, for example, between Lowe, Kate (Foy), and James (Peter Stebbings) was lackluster and formulaic at best. What’s more, it added literally nothing to the story. There was no true resolution for these characters and no reason for the love triangle itself, other than to, perhaps, expand episodes beyond Blackbeard’s ramblings and machinations. This plot thread, in the end, felt shoehorned into the overall narrative and frequently induced involuntary groans from this viewer, particularly in the final act when Kate seeks to abort a child she may have produced during her affair with Lowe by taking poison. Lowe cures her with a rudimentary blood transfusion, and that’s all there is to it. Cut to war, Blackbeard’s final exodus, and no further explanation as to how the relationship between these three characters developed into the future, particularly since it seems as if Lowe is sticking around in the colony in the end, despite the awkward “I slept with your wife, but we’re all still friends” motif.
The focus on Teach’s former wife, held in captivity by his rival William Jagger (Julian Sands), was confusing at best and offered the viewer nothing other than perplexing back story that, apparently, gave Blackbeard headaches and Lowe reason enough to fashion a rudimentary drill with which to reach into the pirate’s skull. I suppose this story line was meant to depict Teach’s guilt or regret; ultimately, it served no purpose, other than to be duly gruesome when Lowe was cranking the drill.
The best through-line in plot found Lowe questioning Teach’s aims in the final episode in a way that ultimately reached the pirate and his warring ego and superego. The problem is that this story, if the main plot thread to start, could have been told in five episodes or less, perhaps as a more refined multi-part miniseries than as a fully ordered event series. Again, the two men’s informal tete-a-tetes lent some interest to the proceedings, but other threads were often left dangling or flailing about in the breeze, left to further fray for several episodes if not for forever, lost to the ethos of inattention to continuity and/or story flow.
Speaking of Julian Sands, his Jagger proved to be markedly over the top, which might have been enjoyable had it been at an equal level to whatever Malkovich was going for in the end. This viewer is, then, left wondering what the episode director(s) were thinking. I wonder how many times scripts were reworked or tweaked before they were finally produced because I suspect that reworking and tweaking were significant elements of pre-production.
Ultimately, in the end, where Crossbones was concerned, I was drawn in by the romanticism behind the lead character, the setting, the art direction, and other production values as well as by Coyle’s engaging portrayal of Lowe. There were moments that could be categorized as exciting, but they were rare and infrequent. Perhaps, I should have cut my losses and stopped watching earlier, but something in this show worked – after all, NBC green-lit its airing. Unfortunately, the series and its elements did not have the chops to warrant renewal. Fortunately, the ending is tidy, if improbable, though kudos to all for a successful misdirection, as the legend lives on.
Crossbones is recommended to anyone who loves a good tale about pirates. This may not be the best tale about pirates, but it scratches the itch in a pinch if pirates be what the viewer craves. I would hesitate to recommend this to John Malkovich fans, for the simple fact that this viewer does not believe that this performance is among his best work. He has made many wonderful, quirky films, including a couple with the Coen brothers, and Being John Malkovich, in which he played himself or a version of it, courtesy of Charlie Kaufman. Those are better vehicles to experience this man’s level of transcendent method character acting. No – really, this show is all about the pirates, for better or for worse.
THE FUTURE OF THE SHOW:
Canceled! Crossbones did not survive its first season on network TV but is available for purchase or rental to stream on Amazon Prime. Ahoy, ye land lubbers. Avast!