Premieres Friday, May 30 at 9pm on NBC.
Pirate movies are expensive. This is commonly accepted fact in Hollywood. 2007's Pirate of the Caribbean: At World's End is still the most costly film production of all time. Really, anything the calls for extensive use of a water tank is going to drive your project's budget through the roof. So it seems a bit shocking that NBC would produce a pirate TV show given that television operates on a fraction of the bank that film does. And perhaps that's why, after the well-moneyed pilot, Crossbones struggles to keep things interesting.
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In 1729, the English Navy is making a play to become an even more dominate force on open water, thanks to the invention of the Longitude Chronometer, a device that will allow ships to determine their exact position while at sea and, in turn, keep them away from pirates. When the HMS Petrel sets sail for England to present this miraculous device to the king, it carries with it surgeon Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle). Except Lowe isn't just a surgeon. He's a spy, and his commanding officer, William Jagger (Julian Sands), has placed him on the Petrel with the confidence that the infamous pirate Blackbeard (John Malkovich) will come for the chronometer. While Lowe is to protect the pirates from learning the chronometer's secrets, his primary mission is to assassinate Blackbeard.
While Crossbones launches with an impressive ship-board battle as pirates take the Petrel, it fails to achieve this level of excitement again. In fact, much of the show takes place on an island, not a pirate ship. Blackbeard, otherwise known as Edward Teach and referred to as Commodore by those around him, has established a secret civilization on the unknown island of Santa Compana. Populated by rogues and outlaws, the island survives from the goods that are brought in by the pirates. While he preaches liberty, Blackbeard truly acts as its seemingly benevolent dictator.
Once the flash of expensive action has worn off, Crossbones is left with only a single special effect to work with: John Malkovich. Affecting an accent from an unknown world, strutting about his hoarder's den of pirate loot and manipulating those around him, Malkovich is taking the James Spader Prize for Hammiest Acting in an NBC Show this season. In the hands of creator Neil Cross, who excelled at giving Idris Elba plenty of scenery to chew in Luther, Malkovich should be devouring everything in sight. And yet, Crossbones can't help but be fairly dull, predictable and listless.
Anyone that's seen the British series Coupling knows that Coyle has charisma to spare when he's playing a goofball, but the underwritten Lowe doesn't serve him nearly as well. The rigid, stiff upper lip of Coyle's hero whithers next to Malkovich's off-the-wall eccentricity, leaving Crossbones without a charismatic protagonist to captain it through some extremely shallow and overly familiar waters.