Happy Friday! This week’s “global TV to watch” includes two terrific action-adventure dramas produced in South Africa and Spain that are set on the high seas.
June is World Ocean Month, an observance that grew out of World Ocean Day (June 8), a global day of observance promoted by The Ocean Project and its worldwide partners to help protect our blue planet. Arguably the best series to watch to learn about the world’s oceans are The Blue Planet and Blue Planet II, both presented by the eminent naturalist and documentarian Sir David Attenborough (and available together in this handy box set). But today’s “global TV to watch” selections aren’t docuseries but terrific action-adventure dramas set on the high seas.
Black Sails (South Africa-US)
Which fast food chain is the favorite of pirates? Aaaarby’s. (I hear your groans, but I couldn’t resist.) Set in the early 1700s, roughly two decades before the events in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island, this historical adventure drama series is, essentially, a prequel to the book. While there is overlap in some of the characters, there isn’t in their plots; the Treasure Island story begins after the Black Sails story ends.
And this is part of what makes the show so good, particularly for folks who’ve read the book: It expands the world of Treasure Island by giving it a rich history through the backstories of characters like (Long) John Silver (Luke Arnold, Glitch), Billy Bones (Tom Hopper, The Umbrella Academy), Ben Gunn (Chris Fisher, Raised by Wolves), and Captain Flint (Toby Stephens, Lost in Space) — who doesn’t even actually appear in but is much-talked about in the book.
The show also blends the fictional with the historical. Alongside the characters that Robert Louis Stevenson and the series’ writers created are the ones of actual people, such as pirates Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz, The Twelve), Charles Vane (Zach McGowan, The 100), Benjamin Hornigold (Patrick Lyster, Wonder Woman 1984), and Blackbeard (the late Ray Stevenson, Vikings), as well as Rackham’s main squeeze, Anne Bonny (Clara Paget, Fast & Furious 6).
But you needn’t have read Treasure Island or know pirate history to enjoy the awesomeness that Black Sails is. There’s nothing Jack Sparrow about it. Rather, it’s a hard look at how tough pirating life could be, whether it was by choice or out of necessity. And a pirate’s enemies weren’t just representatives of the British Empire, but other pirates as well as their own crew mates. The very first episode sets the tone of what’s to come, from the scheming and the treachery, to the desire for riches and the fight for survival. At first I couldn’t help but make comparisons to Game of Thrones, but I quickly got that Black Sails is its own phenomenal show, with its own personal and inter-personal dramas, shocking deaths, and other omg moments. It is raw and relentless and brutal and violent, and the storytelling is superb.
All four seasons of Black Sails are currently available for streaming in the US on Starz’s website, app, and streaming and on-demand platforms (such as Starz on Amazon). Ditto that for others of Starz’s territories except the UK, where the series is available on Lionsgate+ and its digital channels, including Lionsgate+ on Amazon.
If you are an Xfinity X1, Flex, or internet customer, you can watch all 38 episodes for free through Sunday, June 11. (It might cost you some sleep, though.)
Scheming, treachery, the desire for riches, and the fight for survival are also part and parcel of Boundless, a terrific historical adventure drama about the first circumnavigation around the world — an expedition started by Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan (Rodrigo Santoro, Westworld) in 1519 and completed by his Spanish (Basque, actually) navigator, Juan Sebastián Elcano (Álvaro Morte, Money Heist), in 1522 after Magellan’s death. The show only has six episodes, so most of what happened over those three years doesn’t get covered. Still, it’s an exciting show, filled with lots of action and intrigue!
After having been rejected by Portugal’s King Manuel I numerous times, Magellan makes his proposal to discover a western route to the Spice Islands to Spain’s King Carlos I. Animosity amongst Spaniards toward the Portuguese runs deep, and Carlos and his court are rightfully suspicious of Magellan since he betrayed his own king, but the monarch agrees to the proposal after Magellan utters his version of abracadabra: “Spain will be far richer than Portugal.”
So begins the story of the historic voyage, one that starts with five ships and ends with one, that is troubled from the get-go. A bad omen causes superstitious crewmen to fear what it will bring, traitors commit sabotage, and the ships fall under attack by a Portuguese armada — all within mere days of setting sail! Later there will be much hardship and suffering, leading to mutiny and death. Lots of death. From starvation and disease, execution, and attacks by natives. But Magellan’s perseverance pays off and he and his greatly-reduced crew discover what we now call the Strait of Magellan and reach the other ocean, which he names Pacific. But their arrival on an island in the Philippines sparks the battle in which Magellan is killed, and the remaining crew elect Elcano as their new captain. He goes on to finish the journey that Magellan started, with himself and just 17 of his men making it back to Spain.
How much of what is portrayed in Boundless is accurate, I don’t know and don’t care. It’s a drama, a fictionalized account of the Magellan expedition (not a documentary!) that is well-done and tells a compelling story.
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