Having never heard of "Crossbones" until the opportunity to review its DVD release, my hopes were high. With NBC's success with the cinematically gorgeous and brilliantly executed, "Hannibal," how could they go wrong with a pirate themed show from the creator of "Luther," one of the best British dramas of the past decade, helmed by a lead performance from the always entertaining, John Malkovich? While nowhere near as prolific as zombies have been in terms of pop culture cache the past few years, pirates do have their own foothold; from the wildly popular "Pirates of the Caribbean" series, to Starz' own much more adult oriented take on the genre, "Black Sails," the ambitious nature of a primetime adventure drama set at the height of the Golden Age of Piracy should have made for a fascinating experiment at minimum.
While touted as merely "season" one, this release of "Crossbones" is in fact, the complete series, as NBC chose to pull the plug seven episodes in; this release captures those seven episodes as well as the final two, which ran back to back a mere two months after it hit the rough sea of primetime network television. With only an hour (including commercials) of storytelling each week, "Crossbones" struggled with a perpetual uphill journey in offering a coherent narrative viewers could latch on to, while also struggling with offering a world of piracy that at times felt very familiar, but more often than not, seemed to defy convention and historical context for dramatic flair and shock value. Underneath a rote-edited pilot, a simple plot emerges, spy Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle) is charged with the task of infiltrating the crew of Edward Teach, more commonly referred to in history books and lore alike as Blackbeard (John Malkovich in a compelling performance that I'll touch on later) and bringing his head back to English officials. Teach soon finds use for Lowe, not just for his skills as a surgeon, but for his ability to possibly rebuild a longitudinal chronometer, a device which would give its wielder a vast advantage at controlling the high sea.
If this simple tale of intrigue, double agendas and piratical adventure were all "Crossbones" set out to do, it would be a firmly average and enjoyable series. Yet, for inexplicable reasons, the series suffers random bouts of devolution into schmaltzy soap opera focused on Kate Balfour (Claire Foy) and he relationship with not only her ailing husband but also Lowe and Blackbeard's crew. The character of Balfour is wholly uninteresting and a wasted opportunity at providing a strong, intriguing female pirate character; it's even more insulting when a game like "Assassin's Creed Black Flag" manages to trounce a weekly adventure-drama in both historical accuracy and character development. Coyle's work as the series' leading man is inconsistent and often times his character serves simply as a purpose to get Teach back on screen for the series' most interesting moments, although not always for the best.
Malkovich's take on Teach is unlike any portrayal of a historical pirate to date and I'd make a safe argument, may be in a class of its own for quite some time. He doesn't resemble a pirate of lore, he looks simply like John Malkovich in pseudo-historical clothing. What works wholly though is his performance, which can shift gears from innocently charming to ruthlessly terrifying in a simple rotation in his body. What doesn't work is Malkovich's mind-boggling English-ish accent. The only way I can describe it is to picture his character from "Burn After Reading" trying to do a very subtle Cockney impression. There are times at which it fades mid monologue and ruins any semblance of authenticity the show is slowly trying to muster. All that said, Malkovich is a force of nature in the show and its nigh impossible to not be fascinated by his character, wonky accent, self-important dialogue and all.
Sadly, while "Crossbones" isn't really a good show by any stretch of the imagination, its scant nine-episode run does begin to pick up momentum, just before fading to black for one final time. It's a very beautiful show to look at and the action scenes are quite exhilarating as well as brutal. It very much feels like it was a product that wanted to push the boundary of sanity at time, but was held in check by network TV sensibilities and audiences alike. I'm honestly not shocked "Crossbones" failed on NBC, but I wouldn't argue it would have succeeded with fewer restraints on cable. I do argue it might have had a few more episodes to prove that those final two or three did in fact show promise of righting its course; TV history can offer many shows that got off to a rocky start. Ultimately, "Crossbones" will fade quietly into obscurity, another squandered bit of what could have been.THE DVD
The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is perhaps this release's most redeeming features. The show is well filmed, no ifs ands or buts, and this very vibrantly colored transfer replicates the tropical locales and dingy ship underbellies with equal success. Detail is strong, consistent and free of DNR and edge enhancement, leaving an image sporting natural digital noise/grain. It's not quite near reference quality, but for all the series' faults, "Crossbones" will go down as having looked pleasing to the eye.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio track has its occasional spurts of brilliance when the series takes a more action oriented course, but for the most part, it strikes a very balanced presentation for dialogue rich exposition. English SDH subtitles are included.
The only extra are deleted scenes spread across both discs.
While not a thoroughly entertaining show from the beginning, "Crossbones" does slowly show signs of being at minimum watchable. With only nine episodes to sail over, it's only John Malkovich's bizarre, brilliant, and sometimes cringeworthy performance to make checking this now defunct series out. Rent It.