Taika Waititi has been putting out quirky, personal movies and shows for a while, but he came onto most people’s radars with What We Do In The Shadows. He’s proven to be versatile with his TV work, though, co-creating Reservation Dogs and directing an episode of The Mandalorian. He is an executive producer and one of the stars of Our Flag Means Death, David Jenkins’ series, somewhat based on a true story, about an 18th century aristocrat turned pirate. Does it stand on par with Waititi’s other work?
Opening Shot: After a graphic sets the date (1717), it explains that landowner and aristocrat Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) has abandoned his life and hit the high seas as a pirate to get a sense of adventure in his life, we see a pirate singing as his shipmates do their work.
The Gist: Stede Bonnet isn’t exactly the toughest pirate captain around, and the crew is starting to feel it. He has “team meetings” where he looks for feedback. He mentions that some people will come back from their plundering “emotionally devastated.”
Black Pete (Matthew Maher), who feels he’s the toughest pirate on the ship, despite his speech impediment, is already fomenting mutiny, especially after Bonnet captures a poor family’s fishing boat and plunders some half-dead plants from it.
Pete tries to get the gigantic Wee John Feeney (Kristian Nairn) and others on his side, but other pirates, like Oluwande (Samson Kayo), have no problem with Bonnet. After all, he reads them Pinocchio and does all the voices. He appreciates the crew’s feedback, and doesn’t even ask them to work too hard. When another pro-Bonnet crew members, Buttons (Ewen Bremner), tells the captain about the mutiny, Bonnet responds by giving everyone a project: Design and sew a bad-ass flag for the ship. Most of them have skulls, but Fang (David Fane) designs one with a cat on it: “They’re witches. They’ve got knives in their feet.”
Another thing he wants to do is find a big ship to plunder. He sees one on the horizon, but once they get close, he realizes that he’s decided to plunder a British warship. Instead of blowing him out of the water, though, the ship’s captain, Nigel Badminton (Rory Kinnear), recognizes Bonnet from their school days and invites himself on board for dinner.
At dinner, Badminton talks about all the “pranks” they pulled on “Baby Bonnet”, who was more inclined to pick flowers than butcher a goose like his dad; Bonnet remembers those pranks more as nightmarish bullying than anything else. As he gives his “old friend” a tour of his quarters, the men, all dressed in Bonnet’s wigs and other fluffery, can’t take the mocking of the warship’s officers and start attacking. Bonnet, suddenly on the other end of the same mocking Badminton gave him decades ago, finds himself deep in the pirate life when he accidentally knocks Badminton down. One problem: Badminton fell on his own sword, and it went right through his eye.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Our Flag Means Death, created by David Jenkins (People Of Earth) and directed by Taika Waititi, certainly has a bit of the feel of Waititi’s What We Do In The Shadows. But it’s not as rapid-fire gag-heavy as that show.
Our Take: Waititi’s name being attached as an executive producer of Our Flag Means Death — he also plays the uber-pirate, Blackbeard — comes with expectations, mainly because of What We Do In The Shadows. But the aim of this show is closer to what Waititi helped bring to life with Reservation Dogs; it’s not meant to be as much a parody or satire as it is a story about Bonnet’s attempt to change his life, how poorly he fits in his new world, and what the consequences are of that.
In the first 15 or so minutes of the first episode, when the laughs aren’t coming as quickly as you might expect, it’s a bit disconcerting. But once Captain Badminton comes aboard and we see Bonnet’s flashbacks to his horrific childhood, we start to get where the show is going. Yes, there are going to be funny moments, especially when the supposedly-tough crew — who are actually pretty violent, as Badminton’s officers find out — find their inner softies thanks to Bonnet. But the story of why Bonnet decided to ditch his aristocratic life to plunder on the high seas will be interesting to see play out.
It will also be fun to watch the crew coalesce around their unlikely captain. Essentially, Our Flag Means Death is a workplace comedy, and all workplace comedies come down to the fact that the group you’re working with is a substitute family. It seems like that’s the direction we’re going in here, even though there will likely be some faction of the crew always looking to mutiny. Darby plays Bonnet as appropriately clueless about the pirate life, but not so clueless that he doesn’t try to make it work somehow.
Will he grow into Blackbeard? Absolutely not; that’s not his upbringing. But once his crew rallies around him, it’ll be fun to watch him lean into the life, at least in his own way.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: After sending a message back to the warship and keeping some hostages, we see Bonnet reading Pinocchio to his crew. One pirate named Jim (Vico Ortiz) is hiding below deck, not wanting the captain to see their real identity. All of the flags that were made are flying on the mast.
Sleeper Star: The series will have a number of guest stars: Nat Faxon was almost unrecognizable as The Swede, and we’ll also see Leslie Jones, Fred Armisen, Nick Kroll and Kristen Schaal at some point.
Most Pilot-y Line: None we could find.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Although Our Flag Means Death isn’t laugh-a-minute, it’s got a good-enough story to set up a unique workplace comedy. It may take a few episodes, but the funny stuff will come once the ensemble is well-established.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.