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Ahoy... BOOBS!

'Golden age of piracy' series delivers some dramatic doubloons in its coffer of salacious cable-TV booty

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It's a pirate drama, so you can expect some buckles to be swashed.

And it's from U.S. cable's Starz network, home of Spartacus and Da Vinci's Demons, so it's also safe to assume that more than a few swashes will be unbuckled, so to speak.

In recent years, the Starz brand has become associated with far-fetched dramas set against historical backdrops (Spartacus, Da Vinci, The White Queen), in which narrative twists are regularly punctuated by either a) bloody, CGI-enhanced action sequences and/or b) gratuitous nudity and sexual entanglements.

Its newest offering, Black Sails, is a perfect stylistic and thematic companion piece to those earlier titles, so if you're a fan of any of the above, you'll probably get a kick out of this new pirate-themed action-adventure.

Set in the early 1700s, in what Black Sails' press materials describes as "the golden age of piracy," the series focuses on the goings-on in and around the outlaw Caribbean territory of New Providence Island, a former British colony that has become a haven for a few dozen of the era's most notorious pirate captains.

Leading the skull-and-crossbones pack is Capt. Flint (played by Toby Stephens), the most feared of all the pirates. As the series opens, Flint's ship, the Walrus, is out at sea, readying to board and plunder yet another ill-prepared merchant vessel.

The takings are rather slim -- a scant few gold pieces per man when the democratic divvying-up of booty is performed -- and since this is just the latest of several disappointing paydays, Flint's men are starting to grumble. Which is, it hardly needs to be said, not a desirable state of affairs for anyone operating at the executive level in the cutthroat business.

But it soon becomes apparent (to viewers, if not to his crew) that Flint is following a bigger plan, and this latest seafaring heist could hold a clue to the whereabouts of a much more lucrative prize. However, before he can locate the key bit of information, it falls into the hands of John Silver (Luke Arnold), a lowly sailor on the plundered ship who avoids being cut to ribbons by passing himself as a cook and offering his services to the pirate crew.

Once the Walrus makes its way back to the pirates' favoured port, Flint's quartermaster, Gates (Mark Ryan), begins a delicate negotiation with the town's leading broker of stolen goods, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), seeking to secure the loan of enough gold to vanquish a plan by a few disgruntled crew members to replace Flint with a more productive skipper.

Meanwhile, newly minted pirate Silver finds himself in the arms of a resourceful young lady named Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy) at the local brothel; by the time they're finished their business, she is in possession of the document he smuggled off his former ship, and he's forced to make a deal to divide whatever treasure its cryptic information might produce.

As Flint moves to quell the uprising among his crew, he faces a bigger threat in the form of rival pirate Capt. Vane (Zach McGowan), a ruthlessly ambitious sort who has his sights set on becoming New Providence Island's foremost acquirer of ill-gotten goods.

And if all that isn't enough, Flint, Vane and all the other freebooters are about to learn that the British navy has decided it's time to take back control of the Caribbean.

Black Sails probably deserves more credit than it's going to get, because there's much more to it than just an extension of what critics derisively describe as the Starz network's "blood and boobs" brand. Yes, both those elements are on full and frequent display, but viewers who sign on for at least a brief tour with this series will find that considerable effort has also been put into creating a storyline that, while rather preposterous in a historical context, is sufficiently complex and cohesive to be satisfyingly addictive.

It might not take you anywhere you really need to go, but Black Sails won't feel like a wasted trip.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2014 C8

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