You have to wonder why it’s taken so long for a TV show about pirates to hit commercial and cable TV. Previously, any TV plots about pirates were strictly one-offs that gave a reminder of how pirate culture has never gone away. In the older days of TV, though, you rarely saw references to pirates on TV. Only in the last decade when pirate pop culture had more of a renaissance have we seen more pirate themes in unrelated TV shows. Now that TV characters have straddled the line of what’s considered a protagonist and antagonist on TV, the time seems right in 2014 and beyond for complex portraits of pirates to finally hit the airwaves.
“Breaking Bad” has probably done more to pave the way to TV shows about pirates than any other show on TV recently. Walter White was basically a pirate in 21st century clothing with drug smuggling the equivalent of the gold and silver pirates pillaged in earlier centuries. Had it not been for that series, we wouldn’t be seeing the groundswell of characters as more anti-heroes than real heroes. Consider the most popular shows on TV right now have virtually no heroic type of characters. Everything from “Mad Men” to “Game of Thrones” all have characters we continually question in their ethics week after week.
It might be surprising that a pirate could be considered close to Walter White territory, as in doing something they think is right when it obviously breaks the code of law. Those explorations are going to be at the heart of NBC’s upcoming “Crossbones” with John Malkovich finally starring in a TV show after years of playing creepy miscreants in movies.
Based on the previews of “Crossbones”, Malkovich and his distinctive way of speaking are going to give us a new look at this ambiguity of character. Malkovich plays the famous Blackbeard the pirate, otherwise known as the ironic name of Edward Teach. The plot of this summer-run series is going to involve a spy on board Blackbeard’s ship who intends to assassinate Teach and prevent him from gaining access to a valuable new longitude chronometer.
As part of a cat and mouse game, it’s essentially going to turn into “Breaking Bad” where you’re not exactly sure which ones are the heroes and which ones are the villains. Prepare yourself for Blackbeard to come out as being the most ambiguous of all where his intentions may have elements of good while also being a ruthless S.O.B.
This is a perfect character for Malkovich, and perhaps new territory since he’s deliberately played badder than bad for years. It’s a good complement to another pirate series that started earlier this year on Starz called “Black Sails” exploring the straddled line of piracy and whether it falls under the Robin Hood side of the line or if it’s pure evil.
Considered a prequel to “Treasure Island”, this show looks at pirates who actually existed in the early 1700s and who hunted down Spanish treasure. It also explores more complicated storytelling than titillating audiences with the usual sex and violence we’re used to seeing on pay cable. It tries to give a new look at pirates of the day and the details of how they managed to live the lifestyle for so many years with some sense of purpose.
Much like the Corleone family in “The Godfather” saga, pirates were stuck in a world they couldn’t get out from. It was clearly the precursor to the mafia and one where heroism would sometimes cross over into the nefarious activities they were always plotting.
Is the future of TV really going to be about pirates? If not directly, we’ll be seeing more pirates in different forms on TV as the anti-hero dominates for a while longer. Someday, we may get tired of it all and we’ll head back to the heroes again. But we’ll likely see a dark side to them that commercial TV was always afraid to show us, yet we knew was hiding under the surface.