Sunday, April 20, 2014
FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA
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‘Black Sails’ sets sail with a new view of piracy

NEW YORK — To appreciate “Black Sails,” it’s best to start by tossing overboard certain preconceptions.

This rollicking pirate thriller (premiering Saturday on Starz, 9 p.m. EST) heeds three strict rules: “No parrots, no eye patches, no peg legs,” says Jon Steinberg, its creator and executive producer, with a laugh.

And now hear series star Toby Stephens describing his character, the notorious pirate Capt. Flint.

“He’s not like any pirate I’d ever seen,” says Stephens, whose credits include “Die Another Day” and whose mother is “Downton Abbey” grande dame Maggie Smith. “He’s not Errol Flynn. He’s not Johnny Depp. We’re telling a different story!”

The story begins in 1715, during the Golden Age of Piracy, and takes harbor in Nassau, where Eleanor Guthrie presides as a sort of proto-feminist black marketer, turning pirates’ plunder into pieces of eight.

She, like nearly everyone onboard “Black Sails,” is constantly under siege. Soon the beautiful, salty Eleanor will join forces with Flint to ward off their many predators in a treasure hunt with a truly huge score.

“She’s just trying to survive,” says Hannah New (“Maleficent”), who plays the vulnerable-but-tough businesswoman in a man’s world. “She’s very much a human being.” (The cast also includes Luke Arnold, Zach McGowan, Toby Schmitz and Hakeem Kae-Kazim, and is produced by Michael Bay of “Transformers” and “Armageddon” fame.)

On “Black Sails,” expect no snarling, swashbuckling or chanteys of “yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum,” however much rum may be actually quaffed.

“This is a world that everyone thinks is so filled with cliches,” says Steinberg. “But when you get to the guts of it, you realize you know almost nothing about it.”

The series has elements of fantasy (“Treasure Island,” in whose pages Capt. Flint appears, served as a key inspiration) plus, of course, fresh invention. But “Black Sails” also draws on an historical era when, elsewhere in the world as much as for the lawless pirates, revolution — especially against the British crown — was in the air.

“These are people within one lifetime of those people in Boston who, 60 years later, were having the same conversation about ‘What are we gonna do about England?’” says Steinberg.

“Black Sails” spins a yarn about society’s outliers who see the status quo has no place for them, forcing them out onto a watery frontier where, by whatever means, they claim what they need. There is villainy at the heart of what they do, but also, in varying degrees, nobility. They comprise a ruthless subset of the 99 percent, just trying to better their lot. And striking a blow against The Man.

“Heroism is at best a matter of interpretation, and at worst possibly meaningless,” says Steinberg. “All of these characters are doing what is best for them, and sometimes they end up colliding. But I think none of them thinks of themselves as being evil.”

In short, much of “Black Sails” feels universal, even contemporary: What’s going on, however barbaric, often mirrors current-day business as usual.

No wonder. Steinberg (whose past TV work includes “Human Target” and the apocalyptic cult classic “Jericho”) explains, “Almost every show I’ve ever loved has been about office politics in one respect or another: a mob family (“The Sopranos”), a saloon in North Dakota (“Deadwood”) and now this, which is about the politics of working on a pirate ship, within a big action film of ships and battles and romance.”

“Big” is right. “Black Sails” boasts a rich look on a sprawling scale.

The series is produced in Capetown, South Africa.

“We looked all over the world,” says Steinberg, “for a place where we would have access to beaches, but also have access to a water tank (home base for the pirate ship). Where labor was good enough to build ships to the quality we needed, but cheap enough to be affordable. And where film crews could work at the feature-film level. Capetown checked all the boxes.”

The eight-episode first season wrapped last May, then production began on 10 more episodes in November.

Now the time has come for viewers to set sail. But since the popular image of a pirate remains Jack Sparrow or Capt. Hook, Steinberg cautions audience members that they shouldn’t count on getting their “Black Sails” sea legs instantly.

“But I hope that the period of adjustment for the audience will be the good kind,” he adds, “and will lead to the realization that there’s something far more interesting here than what you came to the show thinking would happen.”

___

EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier .

___

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