Black Sails is the perfect example of why critical and cultural popularity is a load of BS.
Before I began watching Black Sails, I had established a pretty straightforward credo for my media consuming habits. It went a little something like this: Watch what you enjoy and drop what you don’t. Whether you’ve been a fan of a show for five years or five episodes, you don’t owe anyone anything and you should be ruthless in managing your time.
In general, I still think it’s a pretty healthy method for navigating through the seemingly endless shows vying for our attention. But ever since I watched the now-cancelled political pirate drama Black Sails, which aired four seasons between 2014 and 2017, I’ve started to really inspect how a show manages to get in front of me in the first place.
This ‘Black Sails’ article is spoiler-free
I, like most people, find myself leaning into the easier choices and watching the things those across the world have deemed ‘worthy.’ Because let’s be real, most people want to be a part of the conversation. Most of us want to discuss hot topics over the proverbial social-media water-cooler and we want to have opinions that are relevant to what everybody else is talking about. It’s a natural human urge not to want to be left behind.
And honestly it’s easier to chase the ‘popular on Netflix’ titles than it is to curate a well-balanced diet of ‘good’ TV. Not because the material isn’t there — quite the opposite. Who doesn’t have a cutting-edge, soul-shatteringly good TV show these days? We could spend a lifetime trying to curate the perfect lineup.
Of course, some would argue that because a show has become popular, it’s probably pretty good. Don’t underestimate the collective taste. But surely one can recognize that relying on the cultural zeitgeist to dictate what’s ‘good’ leads us into some dangerous territory.
Popular things can tell us what’s striking a nerve or what’s particularly entertaining at a given moment in time, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us what’s ‘good.’ It doesn’t always reveal the stories that contain merit or display a specific sort of craft. Sometimes what we overlook reveals more about who we are as a community than what we regard. And I, for one, am coming to some sad realizations now that I know a show like Black Sails could slip through the cracks.
To be completely upfront, this article is brought to you by a personal experience I’ve been working through recently. About two months ago I was finally persuaded into giving the criminally under-watched show Black Sails a try. Throughout the watching experience, I had to repeatedly confront the fact that somehow I managed to miss out on one of the most impressive and ambitious shows created to date. How was that even possible when I pride myself on being a TV connoisseur? It sent me into a pop-culture-induced tailspin.
Assuming you haven’t seen the show, Black Sails is loosely described as a prequel to Treasure Island. In reality however, the story doesn’t hinge on its connection to the novel or the real life historical figures sprinkled throughout. These elements might enhance some of the deeper readings of the text — for which there are many – but as a starting element it’s completely unnecessary information. The show transcends any kitschy History Channel callbacks.
I don’t want to get lost in a series of long-winded explanations about how the lives of pirates can parallel current political structures, but trust that the metaphors are greater than the swashbuckling. (Though to be fair, the swashbuckling is great too.) By the end of the fourth season, the emotional journey I had been taken on was staggering. I watched every single aspect improve from one episode to the next and the subtlety to which it all happened was breathtaking.
You see, Black Sails is crafted a bit differently than any other show I’ve seen. The pacing more closely resembles that to a well-written novel than it does to any modern TV show. Because of that; it takes time. Time for the plot to unfold, time for the characters to reveal themselves to you, and time for you to settle in just before everything you expected gets subverted.
Few people, myself included at first, were ready to invest that time. But more than that, I don’t think I trusted the creators to make use of my time. Something like this is so very rare within the television format — I didn’t expect to be asked to wait for it. So I didn’t. The first time I tried watching the show, I bounced after the fourth episode. After some more encouragement from the internet, a year later mind you, I picked it up again and pushed through. Now I kick myself everyday for having waited so long in the first place.
As it turns out, the small but passionate fanbase has their own theories as to how the show managed to slip through the cracks. A combination of criminally bad marketing on Starz’s part, a Michael Bay tie that was extremely misleading, and a rocky first few episodes that would have been hard to sell to critics upfront is probably what turned the intended audience away.
Basically, it was a perfect storm of bad first impressions that cursed Black Sails into coming and going without ever getting its proper due. In fact, one can almost track its descent into obscurity by following its trajectory online. Press for the series premiere was almost laughably bad. Even the praise for it was cringeworthy. Then, after the show began airing, there’s virtually nothing online even noting its existence. No one was talking about this show, and when they were it was mostly in a derogatory manner.
It isn’t until midway through season two that those who managed to stick around started sending up flares. The fact that the show even received a second season in the first place was a miracle largely produced by crunched production schedules and an unwillingness to flush away financial investments in existing set designs. I suspect under different circumstances, its narrative would never have been given the time to breathe since it performed so poorly in terms of cultural buzz.
But creators Robert Levine and Jonathan E. Steinberg took this gift for what it was and made exquisite use of it. Allowing their story to unfold in a way that is essentially one of its kind, subverting every expectation of how television shows are supposed to operate and making you work for your reward, essentially competing with themselves to raise the bar. The creators of Black Sails respect their audience and they’re not remotely interested in spoon-feeding any sort of narrative.
By the second season’s mid point, you can see the coverage in the show begin to change. Not necessarily by critics or journalists, but regular TV watchers began using word of mouth to spread the fact that something special was going on here. Certain corners of the internet knew what the hell was up.
That’s not to say that there weren’t some bigger forces starting to take notice. Around that same time a small legion of fans began to form around Lauren Sarner’s articles over at Inverse. A note that has to be mentioned if you want to recap the history of Black Sails at all.
Unintentionally, her pieces started to act as a homing beacon to the small, but seriously devoted fanbase of Black Sails around the world. People began learning of one another and realized that they weren’t alone in their passionate feelings. So a fandom — still on the outskirts of mass media — began to form.
The truth of the matter is that Black Sails is just as good — if not better in certain respects — as any cultural phenomena we’ve had in decades. It can hold its own against Breaking Bad, The Wire, Game of Thrones, or House of Cards. But dare I say that because the ‘right people’ weren’t covering it, it got overlooked by the Hollywood tastemakers in charge?
I have my suspicions that because the primary audience invested in Black Sails were women, or women on the LGBTQ spectrum, it didn’t get taken as seriously as some of the shows with more male dominated audiences. What inspires this claim? Well, virtually every piece of strong journalism analyzing the show has come from women. Interviews, podcasts, intensive meta, it’s all from the ladies. That can’t be a coincidence.
We like to hope that good media transcends stuff as insignificant as gender. But it doesn’t take a philosopher to know that what should happen isn’t always what does. None of this is to say that men aren’t invested in this show or Black Sails has nothing to offer them. Quite the opposite really. It’s simply an observation that gives an impression, one that’s probably misleading to the powers that be above.
Now I’m just one person with one opinion, so my comments may come off as hyperbolic, or dare I say it, fangirly (LE GASP). But before you dismiss me outright, what if you pause and ask yourself why it’s so hard to believe that a show which requires time and space to develop would get overlooked in this day in age. An age where we‘re used to binging whole seasons in one sitting.
Is television supposed to pick us up and carry us away, or is it something we should work to engage in? There are different standards between what makes a good show and a good novel, but should there always be? Strong literary works ask us to engage with the material and hold it up against a light to analyse it. But TV rarely encourages that same kind of depth of thought. As entertaining as Game of Thrones is, there’s few who would agree that it could withstand the same amount of analysis as Wuthering Heights or Moby Dick. Black Sails on the other hand gets richer the further down you dig.
The truth is, I heard about Black Sails over a year before I actually started giving it a go and passively chose to dismiss it. Why? Because the source of that praise was Tumblr, of all places. Looking back, I become infuriated with my past self for carrying such a chip on my shoulder. How wrong of me it was to not give Tumblr’s enthusiasm the respect it deserved.
I’m enlightened enough to realize that there’s stigmatization hidden in these decisions as well. Who I think frequents these sites and what their internal motives are, it all involves these low key assumptions that are tinted by sexism, ageism, racism, and homophobia. And if I’m vulnerable to these deeply internalized judgment calls, then the larger world probably is as well.
Which, in a roundabout way, leads us back to what I proposed earlier. It’s not a radical idea to wonder if a show, movie, or book is dismissed simply because of the audience it seems to attract. We all intrinsically know this is a thing on some level. But to me it feels like Black Sails encompasses this unfairness in such a blatant way it’s almost unreal.
I’m serious when I say you should go into the show as unspoiled as humanly possible. (Please, please if you have even a remote interest in giving Black Sails a try, avoid any articles that aren’t this one.) But if you start digging into the material at all, even on a surface level, you’ll begin to notice that Black Sails incorporates some LGBTQ themes into its narrative.
Despite the fact that the show is ultimately about human nature, the power of storytelling, and the ill effects of both political and societal theater — surface views of the show could focus only on its positive queer representation. Not that a show should be disqualified from the praises of mass media because it falls under an LGBTQ umbrella, but if Black Sails is anything, it’s multifaceted and impossible to reduce.
I suspect though that the powers that be didn’t take the time to truly investigate the lives of these complicated pirates before casting their ballots and having their say. An ironic sentiment for those who have actually seen the show…
We probably shouldn’t put too much stock in critical acclaim anyways. Award ceremonies are good for recognizing talent. They can elevate performances, give overlooked individuals a new platform, and reveal a chunk of what the culture is producing. But that’s just it. It can only expose a chunk of our media. Therefore, there will always be someone or something of importance not invited to the table. (Like Toby Stephens. Toby Stephens should have been at that fucking table.)
What fans of the show have to face is that Black Sails lost the critical and cultural popularity contest. Not because of any internal defect, but because of a strange case of compounding external factors. What’s most important to me is that in the future, when people are coming across this show for the first time, I want them to know that they’re not wrong. That yes, the show was incredible and they aren’t imagining the quality they see.
I’m writing this to validate your experience. And in part I think I’m also writing it to validate mine. We can’t let our emotional reaction to a piece of work be undercut by the opinions of the whole. If something calls out to you, it’s valid. Undermining that experience by questioning its validity is cruel in a certain respect. You don’t have to prove something is good or affecting if you yourself has been affected. Don’t look for that confirmation elsewhere. Not in reviews, critical acclaim, or even the opinions of your friends.
Ultimately you have to be your own tastemaker. It’s okay to lean on others for recommendations, that’s a fun and healthy part of being in a community! (I’d also be out of a job if you shut yourself completely off, so maybe don’t.) But we have to be conscious about who we’re going to for input. Make sure you cast a wide net and that you don’t narrow yourself with premade assumptions. Try everything you possibly can and keep your ear to the ground for things you might have missed.
Lastly, respect the fact that good TV is subjective. Just because you recognize someone’s name or project, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best in the biz. A lot of work in combination with a lot of luck got them to where they are. That fact works both ways as well. Incredible talent gets overlooked all the time. And if you get a glimpse of it, even in an unexpected place like on a ship with a bunch of unruly pirates, treasure it.
In conclusion: The world can keep its Golden Globes, Emmys, and SAG awards for Black Sails. Your fucking loss.