Thursday, August 14, 2014

Crossbones (2014)

Crossbones Poster

I’m not sure what says more about why NBC is in such a sorry state these days—a) that it would greenlight a period pirate show that was obviously doomed to fail, or b) that it would take every measure itself to basically doom the show to failure before it had even aired a single episode. Crossbones, about the fictionalized twilight chapters in the life of Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, was a full-on costume drama, complete with lofty dialogue delivered in accented English, and concerned with the 18th-century day-to-day of a band of island-dwellers, whose existence could not be any further removed from the reality of most of NBC’s network television viewers.

I can’t remember the last time any kind of period show had any success on U.S. network television, where a milieu of barbarism is not so much, as it is on cable, an easy excuse to fill genre programs with gratuitous gore and nudity. Wait, no, I suppose The CW’s Reign (last season’s Mary, Queen of Scots, show, which will be returning in the fall) would be the answer I’m looking for, although it is not nearly so ambitious as Crossbones. Like all CW shows, Reign is full of gorgeous young people and pop music, and it pushes the envelope on sex as far as network TV can, at one point even offering a steamier web-only cut of an episode.

Crossbones is not so shameless. If anything, it’s a very proud show (or, at least, it wants to be), and a production that harks back to a less cynical age of highfalutin dramas, where the action and adventure were allowed to be occasionally illogical or even absurd, because the narrative was ultimately driven more by characterization than by sense.

Blackbeard is neither the protagonist nor the point-of-view character in Crossbones, but he is assuredly the central figure. Believed dead by most of the world, the former Blackbeard has taken on the new name and position of “Commodore,” having seemingly retired from piracy to instead work toward building a hidden island republic of rogues and outcasts living free from the tyranny of the monarchy. This is a Blackbeard mindful and weary of his own legacy as some bogeyman of the seas; his past is now his own nightmare. And yet, for all his presenting himself as some contemplative philosopher clad in robes and interested in Eastern medicine, he may be less than reformed, as suggested by the contradiction of his claiming to live as one among equals in his republic, while at the same time dubbing himself “Commodore,” whom his fellow freemen would yet fear to cross.

The Commodore is one of the more compelling antiheroes of any recent TV series, and John Malkovich’s performance is both surprising and inspired. In the role of a fabled pirate captain, it would perhaps suffice for an actor to be charismatic, but Malkovich plays the character as borderline contemptuous of even those he would claim to love. He is always either making veiled threats or expressing exasperation at them, but he is also merciful, not so much by reason or moderation, as by eccentricity. Most remarkably, Malkovich manages to play the Commodore as idiosyncratic without ever going over the top. His measured delivery of the legitimately artful dialogue actually manages to lend the character an effortless dignity.

The show’s actual protagonist, played by Richard Coyle (somewhat like a more subdued Russell Crowe with an afro), is Tom Lowe, an English officer, who infiltrates the island town under the guise of a surgeon in order to assassinate Blackbeard. It so happens that he is also a real surgeon and, in fact, the only doctor on the island, which is very odd, since they seem to need his skills every episode, leaving you to wonder how they ever got along without him. As circumstances force Lowe to spend an extended period of time living among the townsfolk, one can see coming the old twist of the spy going native. But there is also an almost palpable animus between Lowe and the Commodore. Even as Lowe comes to respect, admire, and even kind of like the former Blackbeard, there is the sense that the two likewise world-weary but equally unremitting warriors could never coexist for long. The one is a career killer, while the other is basically a self-appointed emperor, after all.

The characters and their relationships with one another are the core of Crossbones. In this society of cutthroats, characters are caught in this persistent tension between conflicting interest and sincere affection. But everybody is surprisingly “adult” about it all (they move on quickly), because there’s a weird sort of “understood dishonesty,” which becomes a kind of honesty unto itself. Another great example on Crossbones is the relationship between Tom Lowe and the crippled Scottish rebel, James Balfour (Peter Stebbings). The two should be enemies, not only for political reasons, but also because Lowe is in love with Balfour’s wife, Kate (Claire Foy). But, as between Lowe and the Commodore, there is both animosity and admiration between Lowe and Balfour, and everybody is, again, very adult about it. It might actually be the most mature love triangle I’ve seen on television.

In spite of its strong qualities, Crossbones is ultimately undermined by those very same period trappings that, in a different era on a different network, might have elevated it. The show tries to be serious, but it comes across more often whimsical or even fantastical, not because anything supernatural happens, but simply because any show about 18th-century pirates, and where the dialogue is poetic but never natural, is necessarily going to seem outlandish and misplaced on network television.

Taken as a less ambitious, more fun “family-friendly adventure” show, Crossbones still mostly works. The first episode is fairly devoid of intentional humor, and most of the characters continue on humorless (save the one comic relief coward), but Lowe and the Commodore at least manage to conduct themselves with an amusing degree of dry wit amid all the tension. And, although the characters spend quite a lot of time lounging around the tropical settings, making for maybe not the most sensational prime time viewing, there is also a good amount of action to be had.

Although the characters are well-developed, the plotting perhaps does not exhibit the same level of thoughtfulness or intelligence, as, prejudices against period dramas aside, the show admittedly has its share of mildly ludicrous elements, including, as executed, its very premise. Crossbones is set in the 18th century, which of course was a very different time from today, but I have my doubts as to whether the world it presents is accurately reconstructed out of painstaking research into the era, or if it isn’t truly based more in fantasy after all.

At one point, a character inspects the cameo portrait contained in Tom Lowe’s locket, remarking that the lady, his wife presumably, is “exquisite.” After a lengthy conversation about what the item means to Lowe, finally the audience gets a good look at the image, and lo, it is no more than a crude drawing. Maybe that really is how people had to live back then, in an age before photography. It’s hard for me to take without guffawing, but maybe that is my own anti-period prejudice hindering my capacity to take seriously stories not set in my own time. In any case, that example is only one insignificant instance, but several of the more major plot twists and core conceits similarly elicit incredulity and unintended laughter.

Crossbones might have been a hit as a single-season BBC series. NBC might have different standards for what constitutes a hit, and Crossbones probably would have needed to perform better than pretty good in order to justify its production expenses (the locations, the costumes, the props, the John Malkovich). Which is why it’s crazy that NBC ever greenlit such a project with so clearly limited an audience. Then, after they had already committed to a 9-episode order, but before a single one had aired, apparently NBC changed its mind about supporting Crossbones, pushing back its premiere from mid-season to summer, to a 10 pm Friday slot at that, and then finally to Saturday. You'd think NBC must be rolling in it to be able to afford to make such money-bleeding calls, one after another.

Crossbones, though doomed, still came out fairly entertaining, and, at a mere 9 episodes, it’s not a great commitment, especially as a summer binge-watch on Hulu. Since it was canceled, the story is not quite resolved by the end of it. It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger exactly, but the final shot raises questions that frustratingly will never be answered. Were it not for that closing shot, Crossbones would have had a perfectly fine open ending, but still it’s an enjoyable ride while it lasts.

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