Blood splatters as Blackbeard flicks his wrist and spins around to face the camera. This is how Crossbones introduced its central, if not main, character. A twirl, a flourish, and a slit throat. John Malkovich facing the camera. It’s clever. Blackbeard is established as a savage, theatrical, manipulative figure. Simultaneously he is established as John Malkovich – equally important, given that he’s clearly going to be at the core of Crossbones.
Crossbones is a show with a lot of potential. It’s a period drama about pirates, more specifically about Blackbeard. It stars John Malkovich as the aforementioned once-bearded villain. Neil Cross, the mind behind the wonderful British show Luther, created it. These are all good things. Exciting things. Things with potential. The first two episodes have aired, and the show’s ability to reach these potential heights is starting to become clear.
See, Luther was an amazing show. It was a bleak, short, British show about a cop called Luther. Luther was played by the exquisitely cool Idris Elba. It was a show that, by all rights, should’ve been generic and average. The premise could be summed up as “the adventures of a tough, independent, London cop who’s willing to bend the rules to catch his man.” Sounds like every other cop show ever. Except that Luther wasn’t a maverick cop, he was corrupt. The show made that abundantly clear. Luther may have believed in what he was doing, but it was definitely illegal, and seemingly immoral. Coupled with some crimes that, while not particularly graphic, were incredibly disturbing created a pretty bleak little show. A lot of the show was very performance based. And that worked, because Idris Elba was amazing. He plays Luther as an individual with deep-seated rage and anger. The character is utterly fascinating and attention grabbing. Luther was a very tightly written show too. Willing and capable of providing gut-wrenching twists and generally putting its characters through hell. This was made all the more impressive by the fact that it was short lived. All three of its seasons only amount to fourteen wonderful episodes.
This brought me no end of hope for Crossbones. I figured the pieces were all comparable. There was John Malkovich, for instance. Malkovich isn’t a thing like Idris Elba, so don’t mistake this as a comparison of their acting styles, but it seemed to me Malkovich was more than capable of providing a performance-centric show with its backbone the way Elba did for Luther. Turns out Blackbeard, while undoubtedly the centre of the show, isn’t technically the main character. Instead that role falls to Tom Lowe (who’s played by Richard Coyle). So far he’s an interesting character. There’s actually a touch of Luther-esque immorality to him. We’ve already seen him treat human life pretty casually and heavily manipulate people he actually likes for the sake of his job. He seems willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals, and I don’t for a second doubt the lines he has to cross along the way will grow more notable. John Malkovich as Blackbeard, despite not dominating the screen-time the way Idris Elba did in Luther, is going to be amazing. His grand schemes are clearly going to provide the show with a lot of its plot, and he’s likely going to be the centre of many a show-stealing scene. He’s badass, and threatening, and regal, and intelligent, and often funny. It’s plain to see that this character is going to prove hugely fascinating as the show progresses.
The show moves a lot faster than Luther. Or, rather, it feels a lot faster than Luther. A ton of stuff would happen in any given episode of Luther, and not really less than in an episode of Crossbones. Luther however, had slightly longer episodes (because British TV) and a very different style. Luther’s reserved, atmospheric style, lent the show the illusion of slower pacing. Though it was more prone to longer scenes devoted mainly to character development, something Crossbones hasn’t attempted yet. But Crossbones has a lot more time to develop its characters than Luther ever did (I don’t know this for a fact but Crossbones could, conceivably, have more episodes than Luther ever did after only one season, two at the absolute most), so that’s okay. They’re just striking different tones. Luther had a smouldering burn to it. Rich atmospheric scenes that stew in the back of your brain contrasted with bursts of explosive energy and rage – Luther menacingly (everything he did was menacing) looking at evidence then striking a fabulous moment of anger and hurling something through a window. Or he’d do something incredibly badass, like that one time with the can of gasoline and the suicide bomber. Crossbones, on the other hand, wants you to see how fast and exciting it is. Look at it guys, look how much is happening! See how awesome it is! It’s a tone that I hope will settle down a bit. It’s certainly fun, but the show is good enough that it doesn’t need mania to sustain it. I want to know the characters better. I want to know the island better. I also want the exciting Blackbeard machinations and scenes with John Malkovich using a bell like a mace, but can’t we have both?
The first episode of Crossbones does do one thing really well – it establishes that the show will have forward momentum. If you were so inclined you could go back and read my review of the Bates Motel pilot for contrast. One of my big complaints about that debut was the complete lack of apparent direction. The episode doesn’t establish what the damn show is going to be about. Crossbones introduces not one but two intriguing over-arcing goals. It’s almost novel when someone gets the basics so right. Simply put Lowe is meant to kill Blackbeard. When he realizes there’s some far grander scheme at play he puts that goal on the back burner and tries to sort out what everyone’s plans are. The actual scene when he makes this decision is a little sloppy. How the hell does he recognize powerful Spanish figures he’s probably never met from across a beach, at night, so quickly? Everything about this switch feels slightly off, but the effect is going to be such a positive that it balances out. The show will have forward momentum with the investigative element. Hell, anytime the show wants to drop some more drama in they can go back to the whole murdering Blackbeard thing. This is good, smart writing.
The second episode was pretty delightful too. An old pirate buddy of Blackbeard shows up and tensions arise. Blackbeard (he actually goes by “The Commodore” now) has some schemes he needs acted on. He wants the captain to take a piece of navigational tech he stole in the first episode back to the Crown. He figures this will help quell any rumours of his existence, buying him more time for whatever his plan is. He also hopes to get something mysteriously referred to as “Hell-Burners” in return. But the visiting captain refuses, and tensions arise. Tom Lowe gets some more time with the female lead, and the female lead’s husband. The episode goes on, and has a nice little twist. Nothing major, but still satisfying. The Commodore gets to be pretty badass, essentially. Lowe gets to mercy-kill someone and do some more spying. Lowe’s puppy dog companion gets to be kind of interesting too. Good stuff all in all.
But, weirdly enough, the ending of the first episode gave me more hope than anything else. This is not a major spoiler at all, mainly speculation, but read this paragraph at your own risk. At the end of the second episode Lowe and the female lead share a kiss. This is really weird when you start to think about it. What kind of show kills the will-they-won’t-they tension two episodes in? None of them. That doesn’t make for an interesting character arc. Well, it normally wouldn’t. But anyone who has seen Luther should be freaking out at this turn of events. Luther was one of those shows completely willing to torture its characters. Seriously the stuff they put Luther through in that show is horrifying. Death and abuse and awful awful things. It’s not that I’m baying for bad things to happen to Tom Lowe, it’s just that dramatic character development is much better than the stagnant continuity so many shows strive for in their lead. It’s part of why people respond so well to shows like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and even Justified. When stuff happens to those characters it’s permanent. It matters. It lasts. There’s no magic reset button that reverts the characters to the status quo. This, simply put, makes for superior TV. If Crossbones is willing to go this route it bodes very, very well.
The show has been well crafted too. David Slade directed the first episode. Slade also directed Hard Candy, Thirty Days of Night, and a few stellar episodes of Hannibal. He’s also a producer on Hannibal. Slade’s a cool, talented, guy. The first episode looked nothing like Hannibal too, though that could have everything to do with the camerawork. It’s good though, there’s a pulpy, fun sensibility to the show that nicely matches the writing. I wouldn’t actually mind a slightly more subdued style though. Duller colours, a little more grit, a little more grey. The show has already tried to hit some grim notes and I wonder if the bubbly bright colour and feel isn’t undermining that a bit. Actually the answer’s out there already. It feels weird to have to encourage this, and not chide it, but really they should look to Breaking Bad as a marker. That show is a perfect point of comparison because it was both hugely pulpy and incredibly dramatic, which is clearly the tone Crossbones is going for. That show was practically Day-Glo at times, but the longer takes, precise editing, and cinematic composition helped it achieve its tone brilliantly. I’m not asking for cheap imitation, but I honestly think that sort of style would work even better with the show’s writing style.
The writing is really good by the way. Rather excellent actually. A lot of the writing team is new to the game, with the exception of Neil Cross and James V. Hart. Hart also wrote Contact, Coppola’s Dracula, Hook, and Lara Croft: Cradle of Life. So make what you will of that. The script does that whole formal, old-fashioned speak thing, but really well. It’s often biting and clever, despite the complexity and archaic quality of the language. It’s effective and engaging. It’s become a slightly popular thing lately (see the stupidly entertaining Sleepy Hollow for instance, which absolutely relies on a manic tone to distract you from the stupid). I’m trying to think what the root of this trend might be – Pirates of the Caribbean comes to mind for some reason, but I don’t remember those films well enough to know how accurate an association that is. Hannibal sort of does this too, with the distinction that the language on Hannibal is complex and formal but not any attempt at aping a specific historical period, it being set in the present and all.
Am I just listing other shows I like at this point? Kind of, but I think it’s justified.
Sorry, that wasn’t even intentional. Anyways.
The smart script, solid cast, and foreboding possibilities all give me high hopes for Crossbones. Neil Cross can clearly make amazing TV, and Crossbones has some truly great ingredients he can work with. The first two episodes were good, if not great, and stank of Potential. Even if it draws at this level I will certainly be entertained. You should all start watching it, because if I like it too much it almost guarantees it’ll get cancelled. And if you don’t want to watch John Malkovich play Blackbeard than I will never understand you, imaginary TV viewing audience.