NBC’s pirate drama ‘Crossbones’ delivers just enough sympathy for the devil

05/24/2014 7:00 AM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

John Malkovich’s Blackbeard has no black beard. Just a gray goatee, a bald head and a healthy reputation as the devil incarnate.

His satanic reputation suits him. When “Crossbones” unveils its legendary villain, he greets his newest captor with a smirk and says, “Please allow me to introduce myself.”

Thomas Lowe, the captor in question, has already met and conspired with Blackbeard’s nemesis, a sadistic Englishman named … Jagger.

NBC’s pirate drama, debuting Friday, follows Starz’s “Black Sails” into the turquoise Caribbean waters of the 1700s, charting a more glossy and ultimately more fulfilling route than its pay cable cousin.

But there are similarities. So many similarities.

In each show, the pirate lifestyle is under fire. You can’t trust the guys on the other captain’s crew. You can’t trust your own quartermaster. The British Empire has had enough.

Each show allows for exactly one sexually frustrated entrepreneur lady, one dark-skinned treacherous lady, one psycho pirate lady and a passel of ladies to fill the brothels. Every lady has perfect skin, tailor-made corsets and a blinding set of white teeth — but no split ends.

Each series begins with an opportunistic ploy to memorize and then steal, eat or burn the one piece of paper, stolen from a dead guy’s ledger, that could land the pirates that one last big score.

In “Black Sails,” a prequel story to “Treasure Island,” the keeper of the secret is John Silver. In “Crossbones,” it’s Lowe (Richard Coyle of “Covert Affairs”), a spy posing as a ship surgeon.

Lowe, ordered to assassinate Blackbeard if he gets a chance, is as close to a hero as “Crossbones” gets. Blackbeard himself comes in a close second. Coyle’s performance is so understated, and Malkovich’s so flamboyant, that it takes a while to warm up to them.

The series hits its stride a few episodes in, when Lowe and Blackbeard finally get on a boat together to fight a common enemy, knowing they’re each just waiting for the right moment to kill the other. Their dynamic evokes the tense partnership between Al Swearengen and Sheriff Bullock in “Deadwood.”

When Blackbeard exclaims, “Yet again, I can’t decide if you are the most cunning or the most beef-headed man I’ve ever met,” you just know they’re going to be buddies. Their oddball friendship is a microcosm of everything good about the show: just enough subterfuge to keep you guessing, just enough danger at sea to get your blood pumping.

Lowe quickly falls in love after his arrival on Blackbeard’s hidden island. Kate Balfour (Claire Foy), Santa Campaña’s fence for stolen goods, likes to bathe nude in the ocean, drawing some wistful gazes straight out of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.”

Unlike “Black Sails,” “Crossbones” sprinkles moments of sentimental romance between the thunderclaps of lust, so Santa Campaña is a sexy place. But this is NBC, so the only nipples you’ll be seeing are Malkovich’s, and that’s a warning, not a hypothetical.

Don’t worry — the sight of everyone’s favorite psycho bedding three islanders fades once you see him pushing dozens of needles into his scalp. It turns out Blackbeard has epilepsy, which he hopes to cure with unlicensed acupuncture treatments.

Because we’re meeting the legend close to the end of his reign, NBC doesn’t have to try to make Malkovich into an action hero. He holds his own against assassination attempts, but more often, he experiences ghostly visions that make his nose bleed.

Mostly, “Crossbones” lets Malkovich do Malkovich. When something interrupts his cold scheming, Blackbeard paces around his headquarters, making menacing speeches in his unique diction, throwing in bursts of creative violence. He manages to be less of a walking cartoon than Jack Sparrow by dispensing just enough hands-on horror.

After piercing one sailor’s carotid artery, he sticks his fingers into the wound to keep him alive for a full confession. When one pirate actually faces a trial on Santa Campaña, the punishment is a days-long strangulation by hanging, even after a lifetime of service to Blackbeard’s fleet.

After all, the captain says, “It’s the loyal ones you must fear most.”

To reach Sara Smith, send email to ssmith@kcstar.com. On Twitter: @SarawatchesKC.

WHERE TO WATCH

“Crossbones” premieres at 9 p.m. May 30 on NBC.

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