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Black Sails has a rich vein of metaphor to tap: pirates as revolutionaries, relieving the powerful of their wealth; or as hackers, undermining the authorities.
Black Sails has a rich vein of metaphor to tap: pirates as revolutionaries, relieving the powerful of their wealth; or as hackers, undermining the authorities.

John Doyle

Why pirates are the new zombies Add to ...

You know, you are allowed to put aside the athletes for a bit, and all their striving for human excellence, and look at something else.

Let’s see what we’ve got … here’s one. The program is rated 18A. It contains mature subject matter. It’s about pirates.

Black Sails (Friday, SuperChannel, 9 p.m.) is not your Disney pirate adventure romp. No yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum. More like rum, sodomy and the lash. Or as Variety magazine called it on its debut last month on Starz in the U.S.: “swords and savagery and sex.” Yep, it’s bloody and a bloody good adventure. The romping is done ashore, with naked, smirking wenches.

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It opens with a pirate ship attacking another ship and much mayhem ensues. We are informed, on the screen, of the context: “In 1715, West Indies, the pirates of New Providence Island threaten maritime trade in the region. The laws of every civilized nation declare them hostis humani generis; enemies of all mankind. In response, the pirates adhere to a doctrine of their own … war against the world.”

Crikey, war against the world. What we’ve got, actually, is a rogue state, run by playboy adventurers and dreamers who like a sword fight. Oddly, it’s a pretty democratic state. People get to vote on who gets to be in charge. Wealth is shared. And there are several powerful women running the show. There’s a scene, about 20 minutes in, that features a gnarled sailor-fella making a wisecrack about a woman. A powerful woman. She reacts. What ensues cannot be described in a family newspaper.

Back in January, when Black Sails was presented to TV critics in L.A., somebody used the phrase, “Pirates are the new Zombies.” I can see their point. The pirate genre is a rich vein of storytelling to mine, ripe for all manner of added meaning and the layering of contemporary themes of financial skulduggery onto a seemingly familiar template.

Say, the pirates are revolutionaries, relieving the powerful of excessive wealth. Say, the pirates are like hackers, penetrating the secret lairs of authorities.

Here we get both spectacle and substance. The substance is often unsubtle but it’s bracing to see the genre get the premium-cable treatment – this is very much for grownups, with plenty of eye-popping visuals to keep the adolescent in you amused. The executive producer is Michael Bay, responsible for the movies Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and the Transformers movie series. The idea behind Black Sails is to offer a prequel to the events in Treasure Island and, while some of the pirate characters are fiction, others are figures from history.

While there’s a lot of fun to be had, it would be a mistake to see Black Sails as top-of-the-heap cable drama. It doesn’t use the pirate milieu in the way that The Sopranos used the gangster milieu. There are elements of moral complexity and, sometimes, the action stops so that the pirates hold meetings about money, power, the distribution of wealth and keeping the shareholders happy.

However, it’s essentially an action-adventure story with a light sheen of seriousness. The channel airing it in the United States, Starz, is not HBO, but it does have ambitions. The tone of Black Sails shifts often. While, on the one hand, there is a message about the necessity of forging a new society, there’s John Silver (Luke Arnold) all smiles and mischief, setting out on his own treasure hunt. There’s no doubt that viewers will be dismayed by some scenes of sexual violence.

The upshot is an entertaining drama with substantial strands running through it, and some fine acting. Toby Stephens is excellent as the main pirate leader, Captain Flint, a man much feared, but a visionary. If pirates are the new zombies, this is a good start, but only a start.

Also airing

The Colbert Report (Comedy Network, 12:30 a.m.) is currently featuring Canadian Scott Thompson reprising his Buddy Cole role from Kids in the Hall, as an analyst on the matter of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. To date, he’s been hilarious.

Also – be it known that, tomorrow, Friday, season two of House of Cards lands in its entirety on Netflix. “Francis (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) Underwood continue their ruthless rise to power as threats mount on all fronts. Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), the reporter and Francis’s former paramour, is inching closer to the truth about his crimes.” Jiminy! For some of you, that’s your Valentine’s Day binge and one that might last the weekend. Enjoy.

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