TCA 2014: Embracing the Sex and Violence of Starz’s BLACK SAILS

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While first previewed at last summer’s San Diego Comic-Con, it was not until the recent Television Critic’s Association Winter Press Tour that Starz fully introduced its new pirate drama BLACK SAILS. Interestingly, based on the fans reaction at Comic-Con alone, a second season was ordered even before the first season debuted on television. So, finally, this Saturday, Starz will premiere BLACK SAILS for the entire world to see.

Helmed by likes of Michael Bay (perhaps best known for his blockbuster films such as TRANSFORMERS), Brad Fuller (THE PURGE), Jonathan Steinberg (HUMAN TARGET), BLACK SAILS has the pedigree required for a truly blockbuster pirate television series.

As described by Starz’s Managing Director Carmi Zlotnik at the TCA Winter Tour, “when Michael Bay and John Steinberg came in and talked to us about this story and this idea about taking Treasure Island, a well-beloved book and telling the prequel to it and somehow combining fictional characters with real historic characters, we were captivated by the idea. . . There are real pirates, based on actual people: Jack Rackam, Charles Vane, Anne Bonny. . . And Flint and Long John Silver are characters from Treasure Island.” Creator and executive producer Jonathan Steinberg further added, “in trying to figure out how do you have a character that’s familiar enough that people are going to care, but malleable enough and open enough that we’re not stuck in a biography – Flint and Silver was the way to get at it.”

It was the mix of reality combined with heightened fiction that seemed to attract them the most. They would be able to delve deep into modern pirate mythology by tapping into both real and fantasy pirate figures; and with so much rich material to draw from, it was like every young boy’s pirates dream.

So with larger-than-life pirates and the entire open seas at their beck and call, they put together the world of BLACK SAILS, starting with their heroes and anti-heroes. Carmi Zlotnick said that BLACK SAILS was intended to “find a place that felt historically realistic and that captured a moment in time when people who had been authorized by the British Crown to act as privateers and loot on the open ocean on behalf of the British Crown, all of a sudden became criminals.”

For star Toby Stephens, who plays Captain Flint, that meant, “The buccaneering kind of thing was sort of tacitly, “yeah, go ahead, interfere with Spanish-French trade – they are our enemy. We’ll turn a blind-eye to it. In fact, they encouraged it.” It was, as he said, “the golden age of piracy.” He also described his character Captain Flint as “very enigmatic, and a kind of serious guy.” But that’s a polite way to describe one of the most ruthless pirates in classic fiction. Co-star Zach McGowan, who plays Captain Vane, was more candid as he added, “What’s great about what Robert [Levine] and John [Steinberg] and everyone has done is that there is a level of brutality and cruelty and violence . . . and that is what is needed to actually survived the day and make it.”

Executive producer Jonathan Steinberg explained, “The show needed to feel real. It needed to feel like a world where the absence of government, the absence of any kind of authority had meaning . . . that means violence. So when things get violent, we wanted to make it feel shocking. We wanted to make it feel sudden. We wanted to make it feel the way violence feels in real life.” So they stocked their series full of cutthroat rogues and villains and are made sure that each has a personal stake in the pirates’ bounty sought by Flint.

Jonathan said, “No one has dug into this world, deep into the bedrock of it, into the reality of what it was like to wake up in the morning and know that this is your life; that if you were going to survive, if you were going to eat, you needed to take it from somebody in this environment.”

Yet in addition to the hardened men capable of doing anything to achieve their goals, BLACK SAILS is also populated by an array of women just as self-serving, conniving and desperate to get exactly what they want too. Power and greed is not reserved just for the male species – women want in on the game too. Executive producer Jonathan Steinberg described them as, “beyond just stock wenches and the occasional cross-dressing pirate, there were women in this world and they have very specific challenges and very specific expectations . . . it’s a frontier story about necessity, day-to-day survival, breaking down social convention. I think through both Eleanor (Hannah New) and Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy) and through Anne Bonny (Clara Paget), we wanted to explore three very different women and how they dealt with that – how they dealt with expectations that either they were living under or that they were in the process of shedding and figuring out a way to exist in a world that men ran, but in which they had something to contribute.”

Due to the bisexual nature of the relationships that her character Eleanor pursues, co-star Hannah New admitted while that there were some sexual complexities to her character, for her, “It’s a world where sexuality and boundaries have been completely broken down, so to play a young woman who doesn’t have those kind of social restrictions put on her, who is free to use her sexuality, in whichever way is advantageous to her is fabulous and a great opportunity as an actress.”

Besides Captains Flint and Vane, and the lusty women of New Providence Island, the other central character to the story is John Silver (Luke Arnold). In fact, much of BLACK SAILS is seen through the eyes of the wayward sailor who has a tendency to exaggerate his value to all interested parties. Yet as luck would have it, John Silver does have one piece of valuable information that could lead everyone to a fortune beyond their wildest imagings. Now if only everyone could work peacefully together, there might be enough to share; but as anyone who knows the heart of a pirate knows, sharing is for the weak and only the strongest, cleverest and most diabolical pirate will win.

BLACK SAILS is unabashedly about hard-core pirates. It offers generous amounts of blood, guts and gore, scantily clad women (if not outright nudity) throughout the series. Sex and violence were the tools of trade for pirates and BLACK SAILS embraces every aspect of it. But what makes BLACK SAILS addictive and fun is its humor and heart. It knows that a television show is only as good as its characters and they have to have a little fun or it is not worth their dangerous adventure. So look to fall under its spell because it does not take itself too seriously.

(Video credit: Genevieve Collins)

To see where this bawdy pirates tale goes, be sure to tune in for its premiere on Saturday, January 25th at 9:00 p.m. on Starz.

Tiffany Vogt is the Senior West Coast Editor, contributing as a columnist and entertainment reporter to TheTVaddict.com. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at Tiffany_Vogt_2000@yahoo.com or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower).