John Malkovich is barely in NBC’s new pirate drama Crossbones—at least not to the degree that one would expect, given his prominence in the series’ advertising. He’s in roughly half of the first episode and around a quarter to a third of the two subsequent episodes—but he’s rarely driving the story forward. Instead, he’s the guy that everybody else jockeys around, and our actual protagonist has been sent into a secretive island lair to kill Malkovich’s character: the famed pirate Blackbeard.
Yet Malkovich’s work is so gosh-darn weird—especially for TV, which tends to favor the safe and predictable at a performance level—that he ends up dominating much consideration of the series anyway. He struts around making weird faces while he stares at ghosts. (They might be hallucinations, but let’s just say they’re ghosts.) He delivers proclamations while acupuncture needles stick out of the top of his head. He speaks in a indeterminate accent that seems vaguely Germanic—even though Blackbeard was actually English. He seems for all the world like a rather cosmopolitan fop from a Molière play who has been transplanted into the role of a man famed for being one of history’s most bloodthirsty killers. Even if you accept that Blackbeard was probably just a garden-variety pirate with a really cool name, it’s still an utterly bizarre choice.
It’s exactly what Crossbones needs to enliven itself, because the rest of the show doesn’t really do the job. Like Starz’s Black Sails, this is a show that wants to be about pirates but can’t really afford most of the things viewers might associate with pirates—like high seas battles and pillaging and impossible assaults on impregnable forts. The series has also found a solution similar to the one the Starz series did: Make the show basically a pirate version of The West Wing, and hope nobody notices, because it’s filmed in a locale that few TV shows are. (Starz filmed its show in South Africa; here, it’s Puerto Rico.) There’s a major plot point in the second episode that turns on notions of whether Blackbeard’s power derives from the people under him or from God or whatever—around whether he’s the ruler of a republic or a monarchy, basically. The series might have made something of this—this season of Game Of Thrones certainly has—but it’s just another thing that happens so nobody has to waste the budget on going to sea, over before it’s even begun.
If Blackbeard isn’t the lead of a pirate show, then the actual lead turns out to be Richard Coyle’s Tom Lowe, a man sent deep undercover into Blackbeard’s pirate-island micronation. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Coyle’s performance, but whenever he’s placed into the same space as Malkovich, it seems like the two men are occupying very different fictional universes. Coyle signed on for a standard-issue bodice-ripper with some clever twists. Malkovich signed on for a show where he gets to shout, “Feel free to bring the monkey!” apropos of nothing. So much of the show is meant to revolve around the complicated relationship between these two men, but the disparity in styles ends up making the relationship more of a curiosity than anything else.
This is particularly troubling because most of the show’s tension derives from whether Blackbeard will find out that Tom is playing a fast one on him. The show reverses itself on this count so many times in the first two episodes that it has essentially played out a full season’s worth of twists in the storyline in the space of an hour-and-a-half. On some shows, this would be a good thing, but there are only one or two moments where this tension results in anything other than needless busywork. The series is created by Luther creator Neil Cross (along with co-creators James V. Hart and Amanda Welles), but he’s unable to translate some of the central relationship that made that show occasionally compelling to the two men here. In particular, Tom’s stated goal—kill Blackbeard—carries no weight, because the audience knows the show is being sold on Blackbeard’s shoulders, and it would be inestimably poorer without Malkovich.
There are other things worth feeling positively about here and there. The very good English actress Claire Foy plays what amounts to the female lead, and if her connections to the two men at the series’ center aren’t as interesting as they could be, she’s certainly trying. (However, the series is not particularly kind to its other female characters—or most of its male supporting cast, come to think of it.) Hannibal’s David Slade directs the pilot and offers a brightly colorful splash of Caribbean atmosphere that should play nicely in the summer months. And Cross is able to pull off a handful of fun scenes and twists that keep the show from getting too bogged down in the minutiae of pirate law.
Yet this is still a series that sucks all of the air out of the room in a genre that’s supposed to be about excitement and swashbuckling—about men taking on impossible odds and succeeding, even when their goals aren’t so pure. The show is worth watching once to sample what Malkovich is up to, but it ultimately suffers from not following his performance to its logical conclusion and making the whole series a completely bonkers Blackbeard experience. Malkovich is hanging out on a combination dinner theatre and theme-park ride. It would be nice if everybody else would join him.