NBC’s new hour-long action drama “Crossbones” set to sea May 31 to impressive ratings, pulling in 4.9 million viewers. Those are the best numbers the network has seen on Friday at 10 p.m. since Feb. 28, when the timeslot’s former occupant, “Hannibal,” opened its second season.
It was smooth sailing for the second episode of “Crossbones” as well with the swashbuckler retaining 90 percent of its premiere-week audience. For a series that was given iffy-propositions for success, it’s been a smooth launch.
NBC first announced “Crossbones” in May 2012. They opted to forgo a traditional pilot and ordered it straight-to-series, commissioning 10 episodes right out of the box. Quite a risky and expensive proposition, but the network’s confidence was certainly bolstered by the presence of award-winning character actor John Malkovich (“Of Mice and Men,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Dangerous Liaisons”) in the lead.
“Crossbones” is Malkovich’s first foray into regular series television, and although his participation alone can’t guarantee success, it has undoubtedly brought notoriety. Many early reviews focused not only on Malkovich’s performance but his lack of one as well — or rather his apparent lack of screen time in early episodes. But clocking the actor’s scenes is unnecessary; Malkovich’s presence when he’s on-camera clearly establishes him as the leading figure of the series, and he doesn’t disappoint.
According to history books, the pirate Edward “Blackbeard” Teach died in his early 40s. But “Crossbones” works on the theory that the history books are wrong, and that the treacherous rogue not only survived but also flourished as a privateer operating from the shores of his own island paradise. There he went off the proverbial 18th-century grid and allowed the outside world to believe that his dastardly alter ego had indeed met his untimely but well-deserved end.
The series is set in 1729 — during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy — on the really really out-of-the-way island of Santa Compana, Blackbeard’s most-literal of Caribbean hideaways. The residents there are primarily outlaws and outcasts who ply their trade at sea, sailing under the ole skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger. Blackbeard rules over this community minus his trademark — the long scruffy black beard that earned him his immortal moniker. For that matter, he has shaved the hair off his head as well. And to solidify his new identity, he’s now known to the residents of Santa Compana as “The Commodore.”
The Commodore has recently come into possession of a groundbreaking new device — a longitude chronometer. Invented by one Frederick Nightingale (Henry Hereford), it could serve as either an incredible boon to piracy, or bring about an end to it. Oddly enough, the Commodore has decided to sell it back to the English. His price: two Hellburners — ships that have been stripped down and loaded from top to bottom with gunpowder, turning them into massive floating bombs. What the Commodore has in mind for them remains a mystery heading into episode three.
This all came about when spymaster William Jagger (Julian Sands) sent agent Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle) to kill Blackbeard. Jagger had originally been in possession of the longitude chronometer, but used it as bait to lure Blackbeard in for the kill. That strategy didn’t work out as planned, and now the dread pirate has the device, Lowe and the agent’s young associate Fletch (Chris Perfetti) in his possession. Fortunately, Lowe had been posing as the ship’s surgeon when it was attacked and has been able to maintain his cover. He’s even gone a step better and formed an uneasy alliance with the Commodore. Now, all Lowe has to do is either take possession of or destroy the chronometer, kill the Commodore and make a successful escape from Santa Compana.
It took a while for this writer to warm to “Crossbones,” but I’ve become a fan. It’s an ambitious project. Rather than filming on soundstages and relying too heavily on second-unit and CGI effects to simulate a high-seas adventure, “Crossbones” was filmed entirely on location in the Caribbean, primarily along the eastern coast of Puerto Rico and at the former Roosevelt Roads Naval Station.
Whether “Crossbones” ultimately proves to be successful, it’s nice to see a major television network making such unusual programming choices. NBC in fact has spent the past couple of seasons using Friday nights as a proving ground for darker, more macabre material. The results have been mixed; “Grimm” has been a consistent ratings winner, and “Hannibal” has won over both critics and fans alike. But last fall’s gory and stoical “Dracula” just couldn’t quite sink its teeth into either. This fall, the network is betting that “Grimm” will play well with fellow demon-hunting newcomer “Constantine.” And hopefully, there will be room for more “Crossbones.”