Let me say right up front that I am furious that Crossbones was cancelled. NBC almost didn’t air the two-episode finale, choosing at the last moment to dump them together on August 2nd. I haven’t felt this angry since I learned about Arrested Development’s cancellation. Not only are we saying goodbye to one of the most eloquent shows to ever grace the small screen, it was given up for what? More mindless sitcoms and reality TV? NBC and those who panned the show should be ashamed of themselves.
This is what I hate most about television. It has so much more potential than we care to harness. Crossbones did just that. It took the enthralling legend of the fearsome Blackbeard and provided him with a heart and a past. It gave us a wide array of characters, each with their own character arcs. It moved me to tears, it made me gasp, it elicited reactions from me I wasn’t expecting.
And now it’s gone.
I am grateful for one thing: The creators must have known they would only have one shot with this show. The character arcs are complete by the final episode and although there are threads that will now never be woven into a neatly packaged end result, Crossbones ended satisfactorily. It’s damn near perfect. The last few scenes are mind-blowing in their dazzling complexity, the theme never more present than in the last moments, with the finishing touch being a twist of epic proportions.
So what happened? Why did critics generally dislike the show?
It seems that everyone had the same major complaint I did: the way the show was shot presented some issues (I mentioned in one of the earlier reviews that it was filmed more like a documentary instead of a drama), which is a fair criticism but was not in any way a reason to cancel an otherwise pristine show. Surely the writing and acting were able to overshadow the stylized presentation?
Another critique focused on “heavy-handed” writing which I find utterly preposterous. If by “heavy-handed” critics meant: thoughtful, provocative, engaging, deep, or inspiring, then yes, I suppose it might be somewhat heavy-handed. No arcs, scenes, or words were wasted in this show. Everything built up to the moment where Tom and Blackbeard had to confront each other and either tear each other apart as their beliefs shifted or band together to prevent a madman from destroying their home.
And that’s it, really. I’ve read review after review and none of them point out any other flaws – just camera techniques and “serious tone.” What in the world were they looking for in a historical drama? Everybody Loves Raymond shenanigans? A recurring gag everyone enjoys because they get the “in” joke, like Sheldon’s various tics? What the hell did they think Crossbones would be about?
Crossbones was a beautiful piece of art. Which is perhaps why, like Almost Human, it was canceled before its time. People don’t seem to appreciate art when it steps outside the bounds of its form. TV is a vehicle for ads. We all know this. Marketing, advertising, convincing the public that they’re being entertained when really they’re being fed a steady stream of items they should or need to purchase, according to the companies who provide the budget for our beloved shows. If the show isn’t entertaining enough, or doesn’t draw enough people in, the budget flies away to a show that’s more likely to engage a mass audience, which apparently means being dumbed down.
What’s a TV show to do when combating crass numbers? What happens when a show has a strong, loyal audience but caters to a niche group? Is there any hope? That remains to be seen. I have yet to see a substantial budget awarded to a show that caters to a small, online audience. While Netflix is doing great things, they can only do so many of their own shows. Two of my most favorite shows have been canceled after one season because they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) slip past artistic integrity to posture for marketing executives in the name of cheap entertainment.
I am hopeful that Crossbones will at some point in the future be recognized for the piece of genius it was, at least if I have any say in the matter. I’ve posted about it on various social media networks, I’ve recorded episodes and talked to friends about it, I’ve followed the show on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, and I’m planning on purchasing the DVDs when they hit shelves in September. It deserves late recognition, at least.
So why am I so upset over a TV show? What made Crossbones stand out?
The quality of the writing stands out first and foremost in my mind. The ability of the writers to maintain a sleek storyline while weaving in character arcs for every major and minor character, to stay true to the theme in every scene, and to produce such an expansive show in nine episodes is truly astonishing.
I learned so much while watching this show, as a writer and a person. I learned how to dig deeper into a story to find connections between people and their behaviors and consequences of past actions; I learned how to sympathize with people I found unsavory; I was reminded that circumstances can change our behavior in ways we wish it wouldn’t; and I learned that to write a show with a strong theme you must allow the characters to lead you with their reactions. You can’t force writing like this. It was so organic, natural. It was magical.
The acting must also be commended. John Malkovich was Blackbeard. I’ve been obsessed with pirates all my life, and while I knew a lot about Blackbeard, I never considered him as a real human being before Crossbones. Malkovich managed to transcend the legend and show us what the real Blackbeard could have been like. He was a human, imperfect, dangerous, with hopes and dreams and sadness and anger all bound together by his thirst for freedom and gold.
I questioned my perceptions of the characters all throughout the show. Tom Lowe, James and Kate Balfour, Nenna, Salima, Charles Rider, Fletch, Nellie, Blackbeard, Oswald…they were sympathetic, terrible, and great at various points in the story. I felt like I knew them. They were real people. Crossbones created a stunningly realistic world and I felt as if I was part of it every week.
The character of Blackbeard at first seems to be clever, hostile, and mysterious. As Crossbones went on, Blackbeard became a man haunted by his past, a man running from a terrible evil, a sick man who dreamed of something better for the people he loved. By turns a kind man and a deceptively vicious man, Blackbeard turns out to be a human being broken beyond all repair. Tom Lowe was the only one who saw him for what he truly was.
The character of Tom Lowe was at first not as interesting to me as Blackbeard. I thought he was a company man, someone who would struggle with reconciling his beliefs with his experience. As each episode moved us toward the thrilling conclusion, I began to be more interested in Tom. He kept his cards close to his chest. He was a puzzle. I never knew if I could trust him or not and I was never quite sure of his end game. His character arc, like Blackbeard’s, was to come to terms with the man he was and the man he was in the process of becoming.
In the two-part season finale, Tom and Blackbeard deal with disappointment, rage, and almost certain death. Their relationship goes deeper, and once and for all they must decide if they can trust each other in order to protect those they love. Crossbones is really about two men and their conflicting beliefs. Can they trust each other? Living in such close proximity, would they become more like each other? Tom does come to buy Blackbeard’s belief in a world free of enslavement and capitalism. Blackbeard, for his part, must acknowledge that Tom is right about him, something he could not admit to himself before.
James and Kate Balfour’s arcs are highly interesting in that at first we sympathize with Kate and then switch allegiance to James, only to realize that they are both not the people we thought they were, and yet there is something about them we grow to love even more. It’s like meeting a person for the first time and realizing later that your first impression was wrong, and that they have even more severe faults than previously believed but you love them even more when they go against their faults to become better people.
Charles Rider and Fletch, Blackbeard and Tom’s right-hand men are also utterly fascinating. Rider goes from a brooding second-in-command to paranoid secret keeper and traitor to a man who does what is right to make amends for his mistakes. I didn’t like Charles at all until these final episodes, and now I love him. Fletch has always been adorable, but he grew from scared boy to good man, and the reaction of the island’s people toward him showed me that these pirates and outcasts accepted him with an understanding he would not have found among his countrymen. He was allowed to grow up and mature at his own pace. People treated him kindly and never called him a coward, instead supporting him, encouraging him, and letting him be himself, which wrought a great change in him for the better.
Crossbones tackled many issues including religion (various conversations and speculations centering on God, God’s involvement in the universe, the Devil, life after death, and fate), politics (including various forms of government and commerce), ethics (including pro-life vs. pro-choice, enslavement, and wartime activities), diversity (everything from various ethnicities, orientations, and abilities), and the overall struggle of humanity to evolve and survive in a changing world. All this in nine episodes that neither felt sluggish nor breakneck pace.
Crossbones managed to stretch my worldview, enhance my understanding of history, help me grasp the significance of a single action, and caused me to reflect on brutalities we so often choose to ignore. It helped me step outside my comfort zone and consider being in someone else’s shoes, to be more aware of the issues people face in our world, and to acknowledge the importance of one’s own belief system.
Crossbones is not a jovial treasure hunt tale. It is not a violent, seamy story about blood and guts. It is instead an intricate, detailed portrait of two men who dared to fight against the devil they knew in the form of oppressive government, poverty, war, illness, and loss in hopes of creating a better world. How can you not watch in awe as this masterpiece unfolds?
No matter what, Crossbones will always hold a special place in my heart. As someone who has devoured nearly every bit of information on the subject of pirates for nearly the entirety of my lifetime, I was not expecting to be astounded by such a glittering legend.
The entire season is available on Hulu and the DVD will be out in early September. Please go watch it. I believe it will change the way you see the world.