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January 31, 2014

Rebirth of a Sails Man

Starz reinvents the pirate saga with Black Sails, courtesy of Jonathan E. Steinberg and fellow creator–executive producer Robert Levine.

Mike Flaherty
  • Black Sails

Having a cinematic, blood-and-sex-soaked period drama in one’s programming quiver has become a must for any premium-cable network.

Still, Starz has been making this something of a specialty, with its sword-and-sandals epic Spartacus, the Elizabethan potboiler The White Queen and now, courtesy of Jonathan E. Steinberg and fellow creator–executive producer Robert Levine, the 18th-century pirate saga Black Sails.

“It felt like one of those genres that had somehow evaded reinvention when everything else was getting reinvented,” says Steinberg (Human Target, Jericho) of his high-seas actioner, a bawdy, brutal affair refreshingly free of any flouncing Jack Sparrows and, more interestingly, grounded in historical reality.

“In almost every pirate movie we’d ever seen, the characters might as well have been in Neverland,” he says, while the inhabitants of his series are responding to “social and economic trends that people are very familiar with.”

Especially Americans, whose forebears, like the swashbuckling bandits of Black Sails, struggled against an increasingly controlling and avaricious British Empire. “Some of the problems they’re dealing with — and some of the political and economic undercurrents — are the same ones people were dealing with in Boston seventy years later.”

At the same time, Steinberg and Levine have crafted a literary prequel of sorts, telling the Sails story largely through the adventures of Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), a buccaneering antihero who figures prominently in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, Treasure Island.

“If the show has a long life,” Steinberg explains, “the story will dovetail into the front end of that book and recontextualize it a little bit.”

So far, so good on the longevity: Starz greenlighted production on season 2 before the January debut of season 1. It probably didn’t hurt that the executive producing team includes feature director Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Armageddon, Transformers).

 “I’m hoping we can pull off a show that’s serious and has gravity to it,” Steinberg says. “We also want it to be fun.” 

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