Review: Crossbones 1×1 (NBC)

Blackbeard. Without a black beard


In the US: Fridays, 10/9c, NBC

At its height, the British Empire was the most powerful force humanity had ever known. Fully 1/5 of the world’s population lived and died under the British flag. Yet its true power was not on land but on the sea where they ruled with the most brutal and efficient military force that has ever been: the British Navy.

But the oceans that this navy sought to control were vast, unknowable and full of terrible danger. And for all the Crown’s might, its ships were often lost to starvation, to storm and tempest, and to pirates.

So it was in 1712, the Crown offered a prince’s fortune to whomever could create a device that would allow its navy to navigate this great emptiness with a precision never before known. With this device, the Empire would increase its dominion over the world. But without it, the ships of the Crown would continue to be easy prey, not only from the gods and monsters of legend, but from a monster far more brutal and far more real.

– The opening narration to Crossbones

Back in the 00s, when I was watching BBC2’s Coupling, the last person I expected to become a US action hero was Richard Coyle. To be fair to Coyle, I didn’t expect any of the cast of Coupling to become US action heroes, but Coyle was right up there at the top of the list of cast members who wouldn’t become US action heroes. Because he was Jeff.

Of course, Ryan Reynolds was “the second guy in Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place” before he became the action hero we now know, so perhaps that’s a warning for you of the danger of typecasting comedy actors.

Indeed, since Coupling, Coyle’s been a Persian prince in Prince of Persia

…a suave Russian ex-special forces soldier-cum-spy in Covert Affairs

…and now a British government agent and assassin in NBC’s Crossbones. Good for him – he’s made it to the big time: the broadcast networks.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that all you need to know about Crossbones can be encapsulated thus: John Malkovich is Blackbeard the pirate; he does not have a black beard. All the same, it does also need the following addendum: Crossbones is much, much better than Black Sails.

Here’s a trailer.

From Neil Cross, the award-winning creator of “Luther,” along with James V. Hart & Amanda Wells comes “Crossbones,” a compelling new one-hour drama filled with extraordinary action, adventure and intrigue – set in a world where one can never be sure just who is hero and who is villain.

It’s 1729. On the secret island of Santa Compana, Edward Teach, better known as the barbarous pirate Blackbeard (Emmy winner John Malkovich, “Death of a Salesman,” “Red”), reigns over a rogue nation of thieves, outlaws and miscreants. Part shantytown, part utopia, part marauder’s paradise, this is a place like no other.

Blackbeard has designs on the longitude chronometer, an invention that will change the world. During a massive attack on an English vessel, his most trusted pirates attempt to steal the device. But on board is Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle, “Covert Affairs”), an English spy working undercover as ship’s surgeon. Lowe’s mission is to prevent the chronometer from falling into the hands of pirates – and to assassinate Blackbeard, should the opportunity arise.

Taken as prisoner to Santa Compana, Lowe must find a way to reassemble the precious chronometer, all while trying to uncover Blackbeard’s master plan – a plan that includes a greater threat to the English throne than merely pirates…

In addition to Cross, executive producers include Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald (“Gladiator,” “Men in Black”), Ted Gold (“Three Rivers”) and Ciaran Donnelly (“Vikings,” “The Tudors”).

“Crossbones” is produced by Parkes+MacDonald Productions in association with Universal Television.

Is it any good?
The first 15 minutes are execrable. However, once the producers are sure that everyone who’s going to leave has already left, they decide to settle down and not make everything laughably stupid. Only partially.

Neil Cross, who writes the much-esteemed Luther, has pretty much gone to town with the 19th century, messing with history and taking whatever elements he likes from whatever genre he can think of to give us Crossbones. You have some of the look and feel of Master and Commander crossed with the locations of Pirates of the Caribbean. You have the quest for longitude as a McGuffin. You have Coyle essentially doing Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now with proxy-for-the-Devil Blackbeard the pirate, who has raided the world to obtain acupuncture from China, meditation from India and an accent from God knows where.

It’s all a very odd combination but if you can forgive the ahistorical nature of the show, it is at least leagues better than The Musketeers, by virtue of actually being exciting and having some charismatic actors in the cast. It’s even further ahead of the rather similar Black Sails, simply by virtue of not being about pirate administration and having something fun happening.

Of course, for most of the cast, being able to twat around in Puerto Rico and being paid to do it was the main motivation for signing on, so Malkovich spends most of the time goggle-eyed as can be as he does whatever daftness the script requires of him, whether it’s sitting around with needles in his scalp or come up with amusing ways to threaten people’s genitals. Julian Sands, an actor of 1,000 faces, all of them the same, is clearly having a great time ordering black people around on Jamaica while hanging and stabbing pirates – apparently with no oversight or limits placed on him by director David Slade (who’s doing such a fine job on Hannibal). And Coyle is clearly loving being a more entertaining Martin Sheen crossed with Stephen Maturin in a show all to himself that isn’t filmed in a BBC studio in London in the middle of winter.

The supporting cast are okay to below average, with nary a convincing Caribbean accent among the lot of them. However, Claire Foy, despite being a pirate city administrator (no, really) and a rogue member of the aristocracy on the run who says things like “Move your arse then” (still no, really), is a credible romantic interest for Coyle* and character in her own right.

Despite the rocky start, the very modern take on history and dialogue, and the epic lunacy of Malkovich and Sands, Cross does actually serve up a reasonably well plotted piece that’s a lot smarter than that first 15 minutes would suggest. Initial plot loopholes get addressed relatively quickly, the bad guys aren’t stupid, there are roles for women that don’t involve being naked the whole time (cf Black Sails) – well, only part of the time, since Coyle’s character is a firm advocate of the apparently radical notion for the time of ‘swimming and sleeping in bed without clothes on’ – and Coyle’s a convincingly competent period spy whose failure to kill Blackbeard by the end of the first episode isn’t just one of those forehead-slapping moments you’ve come to expect from the historical action genre.

On the whole, despite still being crazier as a box of Aglyptodactylus laticeps in many places, Crossbones is a lot better than might have been expected and might even be worth watching. For another week at least.

* Coyle and Foy were similarly paired in Sky 1’s Going Postal, of course.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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