Starz seems to have settled on explicit sex and violence as the keys to its brand precisely at the moment when the flagrant use of both of those elements in television drama has ceased to be a novel advantage cable held over the networks and started getting embarrassing, and not a little dull. And even though Spartacus, the franchise that perhaps made the best use of those elements in service of genuine ideas, has just finished its run on Starz, the network appears to be doubling down with Black Sails, a pirate show that’s being advertised as an opportunity for Michael Bay to move on up from showing Megan Fox arching her back to depicting actual lesbian sex and for Toby Stephens to get another crack at the American market after playing Fergus Wolfe in Possession didn’t exactly set his career on fire:
There’s a good show to be done about piracy. But it’s one that requires the showrunners to know as much about Caribbean governance, and economics—some privateering contracts guaranteed fair, consistent monthly wages and advance pay—social dynamics that gave pirates a certain amount of social capital in polite society as well as in island enclaves, slavery, and cooperative organizing as about how to make a lady look fetching in a corset.
It’s notable that this season of Game of Thrones has—with the exception of this weekend’s scene in Littlefinger’s brothel—dramatically scaled down its use of nudity and scaled up its discussion of policy issues, from the ethics and efficacy of purchasing a slave army to the impact on Westeros of the particular people who have helped the country run up a sizable national debt. There was a sense in some of the commentary on the show last year that the prodigious use of nudity in both non-consensual scenes and situations involving prostitution was cheesy, a sop to less sophisticated viewers who might not otherwise be inclined to keep track of the show’s enormous roster of characters or engage with its big ideas about the morality of war. In other words, a clear distinction was emerging between adult drama and “adult” content. And in the show’s third season, characters have talked more about sexual assault and sexual experiences than we’ve actually seen on screen. How characters like Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister respond to a threat of sexual assault, or how Tyrion Lannister interrogates Podrick Payne about his first sexual experience matters much more than watching their bodies in motion.