Pilot Review: CROSSBONES

Crossbones makes no logical sense, and features an absurd performance from John Malkovich so I can’t really recommend it, but just why the hell can’t I?


– Pirate speak for “Just what the heck is this!?”

Seeing how quickly vampires and zombies invaded all facets of popular culture, I’m really surprised that it took us this long to get a network show about pirates. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was huge in the mid-2000s, but no similarly themed television show ever followed in its wake (this year’s Michael Bay-produced Black Sails, on Starz, notwithstanding). Why is that? Honestly, it’s probably a matter of money. Swashbuckling adventures on the high seas would cost a fortune to produce over a full season. Between keeping stages and filming units afloat, protected from the weather, and costumes, the budget for such a show would quickly balloon out of control, which is why NBC’s new John Malkovich-led Crossbones just might stand a chance: almost none of the first episode takes place at sea, and even less was probably shot there. Suspiciously, the one showdown on the high seas involves almost no water. Aside from an opening shot showing two ships on the ocean, all the action takes place either under the decks, inside a cabin, or in front of ship railings with nothing but blue sky behind them. The remaining 50 minutes take place on an island. Such trickery just might keep the show’s budget afloat.

Crossbones opens with a pirate attack on a British ship carrying Frederick Nightingale and his new, top secret invention, the Longitude Chronometer. It’s a redundant name for the real-world marine chronometer, a seaworthy clock that kept accurate time despite a ship’s erratic motions (no pendulum, see) and allowed ships to determine their exact longitude. It was a truly miraculous invention and by far the most intelligent inclusion in an otherwise brain-dead show. The British emphatically state that the chronometer will finally end all piracy, but unfortunately no one bothered telling that to the late-2000s Somali pirates. Nick Lowe, a physician/sailor/assassin (Richard Coyle, seemingly the bastard child of Russell Crowe and Tim Curry) is onboard with two missions: protect the chronometer, yes, but, first and foremost kill Blackbeard who’s sure to attack the ship. When the ship is lost, Lowe destroys the chronometer, burns the accompanying encrypted guidebook, and poisons Nightingale to preserve the chronometer’s secrets, but conveniently (more on that later), both Nightingale and the manual survive.

Transported to Blackbeard’s island shantytown stronghold, we finally lay eyes on the notorious pirate lord. The real Blackbeard died in 1718, but Crossbones posits that was merely a ruse for Blackbeard — now preferring to be called The Commodore — to escape the eye of the British navy. Played with complete absurdity by John Malkovich, Blackbeard (aka Edward Teach, aka the Commodore) is a bald, white-goateed, quirky take on the historical pirate who’s fictionally extended lifespan shows a Fisher King in repose, not a formidable sea-borne threat to the British. Sitting in his room surrounded by clocks and a wax flayed human analogue, Teach is haunted by visions of dead, bleeding-eyed girls, suffers unexplained headaches, and practices self-acupuncture on his head. One cannot explain how truly bizarre Malkovich’s performance is. His presence is surely what got this show made, but the Academy Award-nominated actor is using it as a vehicle to hone his new acting form, an absurdity previously only mastered by Nicolas Cage. The way he chews the scenery is almost a marvel in itself. Speaking in an accent previously unheard by mankind, Malkovich strings all his lines together in rapid-fire succession like a nervous child racing through a public speech. The dialogue is dressed up with 18th century Britishness, but I’ll be damned if the show ever slows down enough for you to catch any of it. Every discussion is rattled off at a breakneck pace, whipping back and forth between verbal sparring partners as if trying to match the show’s quick-cut, goldfish-with-ADHD editing style. Malkovich claims the show’s writing was what hooked him (surely a lie – who wouldn’t want an All Expenses Paid getaway to Puerto Rico for 3 months?), but neither he nor anyone else affiliated with the show is giving us a chance to savor it if it really is worth hearing.

Lowe’s loyal but cowardly sidekick Fletch, Teach’s exotic lover and sometimes order-disobeying second-in-command Salima, and the often skinny-dipping, traitor-to-the-English Kate (sure to be Lowe’s love interest) are all thrown in to round out the mix of characters. Crossbones prefers to identify its pirates via visual hallmarks rather than any sort of character development. There’s The-Pirate-Who-Attacks-in-Full-Skeleton-Makeup, The-Female-Pirate-Who-Looks-Like-Lupita Nyong’o, and The-Pirate-Who-Wields-a-Comically-Oversized-War-Hammer all wandering around the island with 20 others characters I couldn’t accurately name.  Throw in an obligatory harem of scantily clad pirate whores and a few British naval officers and you’ve got the whole cast.

Crossbones’s favorite plot device is, and by a large margin, pure convenience. Nightingale amazingly survives his attempted murder? That just gives Lowe a reason to exist on the island and ingratiate himself to Teach by trying to save Nightingale’s life (he’s a “physician,” remember?). When Lowe sneaks out of his room, none of the guards bother to check on him for the duration of his escape. Need to sneak into the drug stores and steal poison? Well, the apothecary agent just happens to be stoned out of his mind on opium and passed out. Come on in. When it’s time to escape from the island, Lowe stumbles on to a seaworthy rowboat conveniently stashed on the shoreline in the darkness without anyone around. Yes, it’s that kind of show, and there’s plenty of other lunacy mixed in. When Lowe first meets Teach, the pirate inanely slashes a captive’s jugular vein open, but Lowe equally absurdly dumps a store of gunpowder on it and lights the powder, searing the wound closed. Would that type of field surgery work if you had a 2-inch gash on your forehead that needed stitches? Probably. But would it work to save a man’s life if he just had a major artery severed? I have my doubts.

Much of the first episode revolves around Lowe and Teach’s developing relationship, a respectful but not quite trusting homeostasis that’s convenient for both men. Lowe’s presence offers Teach an intellectual equal among an unwashed horde of pirates (and my guess would be a presumptive successor) and access to the chronometer’s secrets. In Teach, Lowe finds a man who’s certainly dangerous, but not the demon described in legend, and being with him gives Lowe access to all sorts of pirate secrets to aid the British in their efforts to stamp out piracy. Honestly, the island seems pretty comfortable and resort-like for an unwashed pirate stronghold. When Lowe finally decides to poison Teach, stealing plot points from both The Princess Bride and The Name of the Rose in the process, he finds himself reversing course mid-stream and eventually saving Teach’s life in order to learn more pirate secrets. While Teach is suspicious, he also notes that Lowe was the only one trying to save his life while his men were merely prepared to seek revenge for the murder instead, gaining an apprehensive respect for Lowe in the process. Like I said, it’s that kind of show.

Obviously, it’s not a good show. The writing is goofy and convenience-heavy, the acting is absurd, the editing is nausea-inducing, it makes no logical sense, and the show never slows down long enough for viewers to gain any solid footing (however sandy and unsolid that footing would be, anyways). Whereas Teach offers Lowe an uneasy safety despite the horrific legends surrounding him, a supposedly decent British officer tortures and kills a captured pirate back in Port Royal. If there’s anything deeper to be gathered from this episode, I guess that’s heavy-handedly it.

With all these negatives taken into account, I evidently can’t recommend the show, but why the hell can’t I? Malkovich seems to be having a great time in his alternate-historical epic, and at least Crossbones wants to be a good show even if it isn’t. The islands offer a fun, sunny getaway from high tension television, and the show works within its own crazy sort of logic. Once it’s created its own set of rules, all it has to do is consistently follow them. This is exactly the sort of show I was talking about earlier this year when I said that The Walking Dead could abandon its pretentions and be just fine as senseless escapism. Sure, Malkovich has neither black hair nor a full beard while portraying Blackbeard, and the chronometer was finally developed in 1737, 20 years after Blackbeard’s death and 10 years after the show is set, and the chronometer’s inventor, John Harrison, died at home in his bed in 1776, not in a pirate’s cell, but who really cares? If Friday night network lineups keep including equally insipid dreck like Grimm, Shark Tank, Hawaii 5-0, and Undercover Boss, what makes Crossbones so heinous? Nothing. I have it on good authority that it’s already better than Night Shift, at least [It’s true! –David] John Malkovich is fun to watch, and as long as the show’s budget and ratings stay reasonable there’s no reason this show can’t succeed. I didn’t convince you to watch it? How could I? It’s absolutely nuts. There’s no use recommending it to anyone. You’ll watch it or you won’t, pure and simple. A lot of people like going out on Friday nights, but some people just want to stay home and watch goofy pirate shows. More power to them.

Grade: Not Applicable. Crossbones is beyond good or bad, but you might enjoy it.

3 thoughts on “Pilot Review: CROSSBONES”

  1. My husband and I were extremely curious as to why a show with such star power would premiere the first Friday of summer at 10PM EST. After ten violent, convoluted, mind-numbing minutes, we were no longer curious. This show is simply a mess. Love your recap, though!

    1. It was a hot mess. Reminded me of Sleepy Hollow, but it doesn’t seem to want to own its crazy like that show does. (I love Sleepy Hollow.) But it was totally worth watching the premiere, so you could say you indeed witnessed the master class in…whatever Malkovich was doing.

  2. Oh my god!
    John Malkovich accent alone ruined it to me. I couldn’t watch it to the end of the first episode.
    Wtf is that supposed to sound like? British english? I blame the director and rest of the cast that was too intimidated by his presence to point out that he sounds like a parody of a parody of an englishman. Epic fail!

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