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Scurvy Dog

'Black Sails' isn't just bad — it's symptomatic of the problems with second-tier cable

There are 21.8 million Americans who currently have access to Starz, a premium cable channel burdened with a name that has long been more aspirational than accurate. That seems like a lot of people, and it is: 21.8 million is a number roughly equivalent to the population of Australia. It’s one and a half Tokyos. It’s four Colorados, the state where Starz LLC files and pays its corporate taxes. And yet out of those 21.8 million hardy, free-spending souls, how many could locate Starz on their ever-expanding cable grid? How many are familiar with the medium charms of the Golden Globe–nominated The White Queen or the lost glory that was Party Down?1 How many even know they’re paying for Starz at all? As you’re scribbling out a check to Time Warner tonight, take a moment to consider, if you will, the plight of the contemporary cable network: It’s so very easy for them to reach an audience, yet they often have so very little to say.

Starz was founded in 1994 — as if that insouciant, Poochie-like “z” wasn’t proof enough of the decade that birthed it.2 Its goals were modest. Just three years earlier, cable giants Tele-Communications Inc. and Liberty Media had launched Encore, a subscription-based “multiplex” of channels as loaded with content as it was devoid of personality. Starz, originally known by the somewhat catchier handle “Encore 8,” was the first in a second suite of movie channels that would eventually grow to include Starz Edge (formerly Starz! 2) and Starz InBlack (formerly — not a joke — Black Starz!). Though Starz hemorrhaged money for years, it still represented an important bulwark for its founders. It was a protective stash of highly replayable content that offered not just endless hours of potential diversion for its consumers but — and this is key — the perception of endless hours of potential diversion. Cable companies have long known that households tend to watch only a handful of channels,3 but an overabundance of options is both part of the allure and key to the bottom line. Premium channels like Starz — those that require an additional fee atop your ever-expanding monthly bill — represented a further indulgence, an advance paid against future sloth. Those who shelled out for premium channels in the days before The Sopranos bring to mind those who stock up on Cipro or extra toothbrushes. There was no guarantee you were ever going to watch Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead when it aired for the third time at 1:45 in the morning. But isn’t it always better to have the choice?

This was a cable model built on valuing the razor over the blade and it worked, with varying degrees of profit, for two decades. Now, however, a glut of viewing platforms has raised the price of licensed content precipitously, forcing relative newcomers like Netflix to learn the lesson HBO figured out at the turn of the millennium: It’s far better to produce and broadcast programs you already own. That’s why Netflix’s investment in original content is soaring in direct proportion to its loss of popular movies and why channels that were once devoted to documentaries about sharks are now debuting epic miniseries produced by Ridley Scott. Original programming not only inoculates networks from the dangerously inflated licensing bubble, it also helps them stand out in a crowded field. A hit show does more than bring ratings, it helps define a brand. Before Mad Men, AMC was just a channel that showed old movies. Before Duck Dynasty, A&E was … actually, I have no idea. Which is precisely the point: It’s no longer enough for a cable network to exist — now it has to justify that existence in order to survive. The true power in TV these days lies with the blades.

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Starz has been doggedly hacking and slashing for years now, attempting to define itself in this new scripted age with decidedly mixed results. In 2009, the channel made headlines for the first time when Party Down, its brilliant and wry comedy series, broke into mainstream consciousness on the back of its ascendant cast.4 Not long after, and with great fanfare, Starz announced the hiring of Chris Albrecht as president and CEO. Albrecht at the time was just two and a half years removed from the ignominious end of a remarkable 22-year run at HBO. Beginning in 1985, Albrecht, a former improv comic, had been at the forefront of building HBO into the entertainment powerhouse it is today, inventing Comic Relief and personally signing off on everything from The Sopranos to Sex and the City. But in 2007, Albrecht had been very publicly fired after the revelation of some very ugly allegations of assault. Upon taking the reins at Starz — which at the time, as this fascinating GQ profile pointed out, had a yearly operating budget of less than what HBO paid for Band of Brothers alone — Albrecht said all the right things about ambition, reach, prestige, and beating HBO at its own game. Then he canceled Party Down.5

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Since then, Albrecht has made a series of strange programming choices, very few of which could be deemed successful. Starz’s viewership had long been propped up by a deal that granted it exclusive television rights to Disney’s deep bench of family-friendly movies, including those from Pixar and Marvel. Yet while Starz aired Aladdin in daylight hours, Albrecht pursued a nighttime strategy seemingly inspired by the darkest corners of Princess Jasmine slash-fic. Spartacus, the network’s lone series that could charitably be termed a hit,6 predated Albrecht’s arrival but its devotion to soft-core T&A and hard-core bloodshed quickly became a template for what was to come.7 Camelot and miniseries Pillars of the Earth hid their trashy hearts beneath respectable, if rubber band–tight, bodices while the preposterous Da Vinci’s Demons — in which Leonardo Da Vinci is forced to take precious time off from painting to do battle with topless, zombie nuns — could actually be campy fun if it weren’t so deadly self-serious. (A second season premieres on March 22.)

There’s nothing wrong with doubling down on heaving bosoms. There actually might even be a monetizable brand in it: Cinemax — a network no stranger to after-hours kink — is currently living Starz’s best life, thanks to winking, knowing indulgences like BansheeBut Starz’s original series are all surface, no soul. Watch a few episodes of any one of them and it’s quickly apparent that the shows, like their wan heroines, have no clothes.

A program like Da Vinci’s Demons, which, again, zombie nuns, ought to be diving into the muck like Michael Phelps, not prissily holding its nose while kicking around in the shallows. Attempting to graft high-minded pomp onto a full-throated genre-wallow is like serving a tasting menu at Medieval Times: It’s not what we’re there for, dude. If you don’t own the giant, novelty turkey leg, all you’re left with is a giant turkey.

A similar disconnect has run through Albrecht’s non—Ren Faire offerings as well. Boss, starring Kelsey Grammer as the menacing mayor of Chicago, had its fans, though I found its Shakespearean ambition to be fatally undercut by pedestrian execution. And Magic City, a would-be Mad Men set amid the art deco splendor of Eisenhower-era Miami, was pretty but empty, as ephemeral as the smoke wafting from its dozens of ever-present cigars.8 It’s hard to fault Albrecht for maintaining a strategy that had worked for him at HBO: empower people with points of view and then stay the hell out of the way. The problem is that’s an easier tack to take when you’re first in line at the buffet. Leftovers like these needed more care than they received, and neither made it past a second season.

In late 2012, Starz was spun off by Liberty Media into a publicly traded company (allegedly to make it a more attractive target for potential buyers). A short time later, Netflix swooped in with a monster bid to take over exclusive broadcast rights to Disney movies, a deal Disney quickly accepted. (Starz maintains the rights to new Disney releases through the end of 2016. Netflix has catalogue titles streaming now. Disney, it should be noted, is the corporate parent of Grantland and ESPN.) In a public statement, Starz claimed the loss was an “opportunity to implement our plan to dramatically ramp up our investment in exclusive, premium-quality original series.” The truth is, Starz’s potential buyers would settle for just one of the latter,9 a desperation evident in the schizophrenia of the channel’s upcoming slate: Outlander, a promising sci-fi series from Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica) is throwing elbows with Power, a crime show from executive producer 50 Cent, and Flesh and Bone, a “gritty ballet drama” from Breaking Bads Moira Walley-Beckett. The most intriguing of the new projects, WonderWorld, from executive producer Owen Wilson, is also the most derivative: It’s an ’80s period piece about an undercover FBI investigation into the porn industry. These shows could be great or they could be terrible — honestly, either would be better than mushy mediocrity. Starz isn’t in danger of losing anything just yet. Ratings seem stable, spending is clearly robust. What Albrecht needs more than anything is to be considered part of the game.

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Beginning this Saturday night, Starz is making its biggest splash yet into original programming with the debut of Black Sails, an expensive pirate drama10 from executive producer Michael Bay. Conceived as a prequel to Treasure Island, the series tracks the salty adventures of Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) and his crew, some of whom are younger versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s creations, including boatswain Billy Bones (Tom Hopper) and a mysterious rake named John Silver (Luke Arnold). Though there’s rum and plenty of whoring — this is, after all, a Starz show — the mood is rarely as sunny as the sumptuous South African locations. In the pilot, Flint’s fearsome ship, the Walrus, is in hot pursuit of a Spanish freighter larded with gold. After an opening naval battle — marred by sketchy CGI and bullet-timed musket play — it’s eventually revealed that Flint’s long-term goal isn’t anything as pedestrian as wealth. What he wants is nothing short of a revolution: With his newfound treasure, Flint believes he can organize the lawless Bahamas into a new kingdom with himself seated firmly on the throne.

If this sounds (a) like the least merry pirate yarn ever constructed, and (b) a little bit like Game of Thrones, feel free to shiver your own timbers. With its gimpy talk of taxation and democracy, Black Sails suffers from the same soggy self-importance that has sunk previous Starz series. (Stephens is a particular offender in this regard, as he plays the apparently charismatic Flint like he’s doing penance, not auditioning for Penzance.) And the wilds of Westeros were clearly the inspiration for the show’s twisty allegiances, interminable opening credits, and unflappable devotion to sexposition. (To its credit, Black Sails lasts a full 24 minutes before John Silver is dragged into the first of no doubt many wine-spilling orgies.) The pilot was directed by Neil Marshall, the man who made the “Blackwater” episode of Thrones feel like the most exciting movie of the year. Unfortunately, he has the opposite effect here — his swooping, invasive camera only exposes the limitations of the landlocked sets, the incongruity of every character’s remarkable hygiene. (An alternate title for Black Sails could be White Teeth.)

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More than anything, though, Black Sails feels marooned between possibilities. With its desire for substance, it buckles where it should swash. (Not even Luke Arnold’s unconvincing Johnny Depp imitation manages to help on that score.) Though the budget appears high for TV, it’s still not high enough to allow for much filming on water, leaving creator Jonathan E. Steinberg (Jericho) continually grasping for reasons to beach his seaworthy leads. The show operates under Michael Bay’s cinematic rulebook — though with none of his steroidal élan — meaning men who are beaten within an inch of their lives one week appear mostly shipshape the next, thus seriously diminishing the potential for suspense. (It’s unclear onscreen what Bay’s day-to-day involvement with the show actually was.) And Black Sails appears to subscribe to a theory of femininity cribbed mostly from video games: As Jessica Fletcher, a fence for pirated goods, the striking Hannah New sashays through Nassau like she’s just finished filming an Oil of Olay commercial, a blue streak of profanity and a mean left hook meant to stand in for toughness. She’s also bisexual, having moved from the scowly charms of Zach McGowan’s Captain Vane to the softly lit clutches of Jessica Parker Kennedy (as Max, a French-ish prostitute), which could actually be interesting if it weren’t so plainly cynical. (The other female characters are drawn with the same shaky hand: Clara Paget plays the double-sword-wielding Anne Bonny, a Michonne-like figure ripped from the history books who appears to have left her dialogue there as well.)

It’s all quite clumsy when it’s not outright dull, though that hasn’t stopped Albrecht from already renewing the show for a second season. The truth is, he needs this ship to stay afloat far more than Captain Flint does. Starz was created 20 years ago as added value for cable companies. Now that channels like HBO and Showtime are actively considering a cord-cutting future placing them in direct competition with the nimble, loaded Netflix and Amazon — Starz desperately needs a brand-defining, eyeball-attracting hit to keep it from going down with the same creaky media freighters that birthed it. The seas are choppy out there, and more crowded by the day. Treading water is no longer an option.

Filed Under: TV, black sails, starz, owen wilson, Michael Bay, HBO, party down, ronald d. moore, Rick Ross, kelsey grammer, boss

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald

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