Friday, May 30, 2014

In Which I Review Crossbones (1x1)

When I first learned that NBC would be producing a swash buckle take on the historic Blackbeard, I rolled my eyes and said, "of course they are." Because nothing screams summer like an adventure on the high seas. The trailer for "Crossbones" coupled with NBC's previous attempts at new drama (ie: Dracula) left me doubtful that this would be anything more than an exercise in foolishness. Despite having the accomplished John Malcovich as the lead, the show just seemed too ridiculous to take seriously. So image my surprise when the first episode, "The Devil's Domain," was actually...good. Now, I don't mean it's life altering Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Orphan Black kind of good. But it was good nonetheless. It blended humor and intrigue and good old fashioned pirating (pay attention, ONCE, this is how you do pirates) effortlessly. There was enough to keep me coming back for more and little in the way of filler or fluff.  Maybe NBC got something right for a change?

At present, there are only four characters that truly matter, and two of them are far more important than the others. Instead of introducing a veritable slew of new figures, the show did well in introducing necessary players but only providing tidbits as to who they really are and what they want. I have no doubt that there will be others that come into play as these 10 episodes play out. The cast is, as you might expect, an assorted motley crew of pirates and thieves--each one brandishing a different weapon. There are islanders and Englishmen and miscellaneous riff-raff. What really sells the show, so far at least, are the two leads of Blackbeard and Thomas Lowe.

I believe I made mention of this in my ONCE 3x17 post, but Blackbeard was a real historical figure. Despite what Hollywood would have you believe--as most pirates these days are based on the mythic representation of Blackbeard as opposed to any historical truth--he was not a crazed killing machine. He was a pirate, and a very good one, to be sure, but he did not go around killing people for the sake of killing. He also lit his beard on fire, but I suppose we can dispense with that for the sake of safety? NBC's take on the pirate, who does not have a flaming beard sadly, is not what I expected. I thought we'd get a caricature--not a character. He'd do all the things a pirate is supposed to do--say "arg" a lot, have a parrot, and with any luck be more comical than scary. Turns out, John Malcovich as a pirate, is terrifying. We're talking boot quaking, on the edge of your seat, really messed up terrifying. He's the best kind of terrifying--he'll smile as he threatens you. This Blackbeard is polite and educated and unlike his pirate brothers, he is above the more brutish desires and natures. He is clean and has the air of an English gentleman about him. Of course, he'll threaten you, hang you in the town square, draw and quarter you, flay you, and let all manner of terrible things befall you, but he'd drink his high tea and crumpets while doing it. In a word--this Blackbeard is cold. Ice to the touch. What his ultimate end game is, I don't know. But given that we first see him surrounded by a host of ticking clocks, I suspect he's literally running out of time. Time for what though--his life? Or until the British Empire gobbles up the rest of the world that he used to run and he is forced back into the murky depths, lost to civilization? Blackbeard is also cunning and has somehow managed to ensconce himself as king of this tiny isle, though life on a rock must be a dreadful one for a pirate. There is also, clearly, something in his past that haunts him. I was not expecting a dead woman covered in blood to show up, floating eerily at his door, but there she was! And so traumatizing was the specter, that Blackbeard had a physical reaction to her in the form of a nosebleed. Dead wife? Dead mistress? Not sure but I found this Blackbeard fascinating and enjoyable to watch.

Standing opposed to Blackbeard, but with a touch of pirate in him, is Thomas Lowe who is a doctor--spy--doctor--spy---I really don't know. He obviously has some medical training, though that could be as part of his spy training. And it's also obvious that Lowe has a gift for espionage. But apart from his standing orders to kill Blackbeard, we don't know a whole lot about him. His conversations with Blackbeard, though, were interesting. They are essentially trying to play a game of chess, and both know (or at least thinks they know) what the other wants. Lowe wants Blackbeard dead and Blackbeard wants Lowe's help before he hangs him up for the crows to peck at. Lowe strikes me as a loyal only when it suits him. While he has no problem following orders, I suspect he might be tempted by island living. Blackbeard has too little freedom, Lowe has too much. And of course, his temptress to the world of attachment is the naked swimmer Lady Katherine. Temptation, thy name is woman. What I'm more interested in is why Lowe became a spy in the first place. Spies on TV becomes spies because they are unattached, they are not bound by hearth and home and thus free to take up a life of danger, peaking into other people's hearth and homes. But it's also pretty common that spies are running from something--a bad family, a broken heart, and so on and so forth. What's Lowe's story? And what would it take--apart from Lady Katherine--to break Lowe's ties to the crown?

Quick nitty gritty of plot. The British Empire is quickly claiming many parts of the globe. However, the oceans are vast and many ships get lost without proper navigational equipment. Enter a curious looking device that will allow a ship to chart their location at sea. Once the British Navy has this at their disposal, the seas are theirs for the taking, and all pirates be damned. This device, its inventor, and the inventor's encoded diary are bound for London, Thomas Lowe in tow as a form of protection. Lowe's other objective is to find Blackbeard and kill him. Pretty simple, right? Except that the ship is taken over by Blackbeard's men and ransacked; Lowe makes a last ditch effort to destroy the machine and the diary but only succeeds in completely destroying the former. He is taken, with the diary, to a small island on which Blackbeard has set up shop. Blackbeard gives Lowe an ultimatum: translate the diary and you can live awhile longer or die now. It's only episode one, so I think we know what option Lowe takes.

Lowe does make one half hearted attempted at escape and murdering Blackbeard but changes his mind due to a plot involving the Spanish--this, as of right now, is unclear but will become clearer as the show progresses.

The other two important characters are the Lady Katherine, who is on the island hiding out from charges of high treason and her husband (?) who doesn't have a name yet, but is working with Blackbeard. Lady Kate (as I shall now call her) thinks her husband an invalid and in a wheelchair but he's faking that apparently. Didn't expect that either. There is also Selima, and if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say she and Blackbeard have a thing going. Selima like puzzles, that's all we know so far, but since that's her first character trait, it's an important one.

Over all, I'd say to check it out. The pilot held my interest and was good fun but also left me wanting more.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Devil's Domain

--Really nice set and costume design. Felt very tropical and pirate-y.

--Malcovich's accent took a bit of getting used to.

--A wee bit violent but nowhere near the blood and gore of Dracula

--Despite having a potential thing with Selima, Blackbeard also has a harem.

--Any good spy must have an assistant but I do hope Fletch doesn't become too comic relief-y.

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