Even the lowliest philosophy student knows that one of Friedrich Nietzsche's masterworks is "Beyond Good and Evil."
What many of the philosophically inclined may not know is that Nietzsche found the secret to eternal life, emigrated to California and labored in the television industry for decades. His latest opus is NBC's pirate tale "Crossbones."
The preceding paragraph contains only lies, but it's as good an explanation as any for the existence of "Crossbones" and possibly for the cuckoo-bananas performance at the center of it. You may want to know if "Crossbones" is good or bad, but I tell you, it is beyond good and evil.
Everything around Malkovich is workmanlike and rather predictable, if competent (the show runner is Neil Cross, whose "Luther" also showcased a charismatic actor and also flailed around fairly often in search of coherence). The story and characters bear a certain resemblance to elements of the Starz pirate tale "Black Sails," right down to a MacGuffin that drives the plot and a paltry number of scenes taking place on the open seas. There is grog.
But, I mean, Malkovich.
To call what he does scenery chewing is an insult to scenery and mastication. The Malk dines on his lines in the way that Hannibal Lector lovingly crafts terrifying meals on "Hannibal." If you were to watch "Crossbones" simply to see Malkovich deploy the ever-evolving, unplaceable, semi-loony accent he uses throughout, I would not fault you at all. Is it derived from bored boarding school girls in the Northeast circa 1955? From drunken revelers in the French Quarter? From weathermen in Kansas or Fargo? Who can say? What right do we have to classify the free-spirited butterfly that is Malkovich's accent?
Yet you still demand to know: Is this good or evil? Open your mind, man -- this is just something else. But because you're a good person and deserve more context, here are five things to know about "Crossbones," so that you set your expectations at just the right pitch and arrrrrr not disappointed:
- The rest of the cast, particularly Richard Coyle and Claire Foy, do credible work. Coyle in particular carries the majority of the story as an operative for the British crown. In the first hour, for example, the Malk only shows up for about a third of the running time.
- But oh, you won't soon forget his first few scenes! At one point in the first episode, the Malk performs acupuncture on his own head. I did not make that up. Knowing this in advance will not spoil your experience of the moment, trust me. (I hear your question: "But Mo, is that as weird as the scene in 'Salem' in which Janet Montgomery's witch character allows her 'familiar' -- a frog -- to drain blood from her inner thigh?" Great question. The reason I can't answer is because TV broke my brain.)
- The Malk's character, Blackbeard (or "The Commodore" or "Teach" or "Ed," as one character calls him), likes clocks a lot. Something about God is a watchmaker, etc. It was a keen disappointment to me that in the episodes I watched, he did not shout about "Zeee clocks!" as did an agitated German man in the non-classic ABC series "Zero Hour."
- As noted above, most events take place on dry land and there are a lot of time-filling scenes. People walk on the beach, converse a lot, visit temples, visit prostitutes, tell long tales about pirate derring-do, etc. What I'm saying is, there's a lot of time to go make a sandwich. Chances are, you will not miss anything all that relevant.
- As David T. Cole pointed out on Twitter, most of the Malk's scenes take place in a study/office/lounge that very much resembles a Pier 1 or Ten Thousand Villages store. Even if you get bored in the Malk's scenes (unlikely!), you'll have plenty of home accessories to check out. The lanterns are to die!
Yet you still want to know, is "Crossbones" good? I fear that I have failed you, because I do not know. On paper, the adventure drama is not quite as adventurous as one might like and the characters are generally not all that well developed, but it's better at those basics than "Black Sails," a.k.a. "Blech Sails." That show did have a whole lot more nudity (that's what premium cable is for, after all), but it was mostly lacking in the charisma department.
I don't know how "Crossbones" is going fill up its allotted 10 hours, but the drama does not have a charisma deficit, not with its main attraction going Full Malkovich much of the time. NBC has stumbled on a business model that, for all I know, may actually keep on working for the network: Take a hambone actor of a certain age -- a la James Spader in "The Blacklist" -- put that actor into a recognizable formula or a property with name recognition, add water and stir.
It doesn't always work, of course: "Dracula's" dullsville star wasn't hammy enough to make terrible writing work. Everybody loves Blair Underwood, but "Ironside" was just too dopey to live, and "Crisis" was too leaden and dour to give Gillian Anderson much to work with (would it have killed the show to add just one alien? Or a shouting German man?).
Maybe NBC need to keep leaning on Ye Olden Times and historically fuzzy star vehicles with no depth. Lord knows, I sat through much more of "Crossbones" than I would have had the Malk not worn a sea-bleached vest, exerted his semi-magical accent and said the word "chronometer" in such hypnotizing ways. You can have your sexposition, "Game of Thrones" -- have you got a scene of John Malkovich laying down a page or two explanatory dialogue while giving himself stitches on his own head? Not bloody likely.
Anyway, I can already see next year's NBC pilot announcements: Al Pacino is "Nostradamus!" Gary Oldman is "Frankenstein"! Bette Midler will take Jane Austen to school as the delightful ingenue "Emma"!
Ignore all of the above. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.
"Crossbones" premieres 10 p.m. ET Friday on NBC.