There are many, many reasons why NBC’s summer replacement series “Crossbones” is terribly silly TV. But there are nearly as many reasons why it’s one of the more addictive shows you’ll cross swords with this summer. So climb on board, landlubbers, and let’s see what’s in store for us on the high seas.
For starters this show is about pirates, and who doesn’t love pirates? Sailing ships, cutlasses, cannons, puffy shirts: a fine collection of elements. Secondly beloved acting weirdo John Malkovich is front and center in all the commercials as famed pirate king Blackbeard. But he sports a really tiny goatee here, and it isn’t even black. Right out of the docks, “Crossbones” looks like it isn’t even trying. And yet Malkovich is never less than mesmerizing on screen. He balances on the knife-edge of chewing every last bit of scenery in the show to bits. One notch louder on the voice, one facial twitch more and he’d be pulling a full-on Nic Cage here. But he doesn’t. His Blackbeard is frighteningly intellectual, incongruously well-spoken and just bizarre enough to leave a lasting impression. The most memorable scene in the show’s pilot had Malkovich delivering an entire monologue covered in Chinese acupuncture needles. Why? Because Malkovich.
It’s all a bunch of melodramatic hooey, but series creators Neil Cross and James V. Hart keep the dialogue sophisticated and the plots cruising just a knot or two under full-blown campy.
It’s a shame then that Malkovich isn’t really the centerpiece of the series. Instead, the show focuses on Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle, “Covert Affairs”), a British spy tasked by the Governor of Jamaica with protecting a revolutionary gizmo that will allow sailors to navigate the high seas (a difficult task in the early 1700s). But the navigational device is just a bluff, a McGuffin used to draw old Blackbeard out of hiding. See, the wily old sea dog supposedly died years ago, but he’s been holed up in his secret pirate lair in the Caribbean. Lowe’s job is to slip in and bump off the legendary outlaw once and for all. Complications involving evil Spaniards (and a sexy female black marketeer) prevent Lowe from pulling the trigger, stranding him undercover on Blackbeard’s island for at least 10 episodes.
It’s all a bunch of melodramatic hooey, but series creators Neil Cross (of the BBC drama “Luther”) and James V. Hart (who wrote Hook and Bram Stoker’s Dracula) keep the dialogue sophisticated and the plots cruising just a knot or two under full-blown campy. The series isn’t as R-rated as Starz’ exploitative “Black Sails,” but it’s surprisingly lusty and violent for primetime broadcast television. The show’s budget curtails a lot of major action set pieces (after the pilot, naval battles drop off perceptively), but there’s still enough landlocked intrigue to get by.
“Crossbones” is a crazy-ass show. At its best it emulates the grim, swashbuckling and only faintly historical pirate comic books from the early ’50s (like EC’s infamous “Piracy”). It’s filled with grandiloquent conversations and bloody throat-slashings, ginned-up James Bond derring-do and tacked-on romance. And yet, in the right frame of mind, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. If that’s what you’re in the mood for this summer, pull up your dinghy and get to digging.