Last Friday saw the premiere of Crossbones, the new NBC themed pirate drama staring John Malkovich and Richard Coyle. ‘John Malkovich as Blackbeard’ surely has to be one of the easiest pitches ever. I wanted this to be good; I so wanted this to be good. And stunningly and wonderfully it is.
The Commodore, as Blackbeard wishes to be known, rules over New Providence the largest island in what is now the modern day Bahamas. Alternatively violent and philosophical, not to mention fairly obviously certifiably nuts, the character of Blackbeard is a canvas on which everything you love about Malkovich as an actor can come to the fore. Sure it’s over the top scene chewing of the highest order and it doesn’t remotely matter. Because it works beautifully and you believe that Blackbeard is capable of absolutely anything.
While Malkovich is being Malkovich, Coyle is a revelation as the British spy Tom Lowe, sent on the mission to kill Blackbeard. Regular viewers of British television will recall Coyle as Jeff in the BBC version of Coupling and here he is sensationally charismatic, holding his own every time he’s on screen with Malkovich. No small task and there’s more than a little of Russell Crowe in the performance with a similar gravelly voice and outstanding presence.
Created and written by Neil Cross, best known for a similar duality on the excellent BBC crime drama Luther, Crossbones is set in the final phase of The War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714). As such the show also offers the potential of some rich political intrigue in addition to the assassination story arc and the phrase ‘politics makes strange bedfellows,’ comes to mind as perhaps both a literal and figurative future for the show. We shall see.
Adding weight to the cast are Yasmine Al Masri as the highly intelligent and devious Selima along with Clair Foy as Lady Katherine Balfour, a ‘fugitive from justice,’ as Coyle comments on arriving at the island.
Al Masri’s Selima appears rather promising as that rarity on television; a strong lead female character with her own agenda, one that gets started in the opening episode. Selima seems both beholding to, and independent of, Blackbeard and I’m intrigued to see where her machinations will take her and the show. Meanwhile Balfour is clearly intended as a potential love interest for Lowe and represents the most likely misstep for the writers although there are also hints of strength in her character.
Crossbones sets up nicely as a strong drama with four well defined characters on which to build. That in of itself after one episode would be worth championing, but with Malkovich, Coyle, Al Masri and Foy there’s more than a sneaking suspicion that this will be worth the time investment each Friday evening at 10pm.
– Wallace Poulter