TV Review: ‘Our Flag Means Death’

by Rachel Bellwoar

While series like Quinta Brunson’s Abbott Elementary are showing how viable and hilarious workplace comedies still can be, David Jenkins’ Our Flag Means Death is showing how a big concept can take comedy in a fresh direction. For all the love that pirates get, there haven’t been that many pirate TV shows or comedies. There’s Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean (the movie franchise) and Black Sails was a drama, but whether because of money concerns (a lot of scenes on boats, which have to look like they’re at sea even if they’re not) or disinterest, pirates have been neglected.

Photograph by Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

Stede (Flight of the ConcordsRhys Darby) is a self-proclaimed gentleman pirate, which basically means he’s only captain because he’s rich (and the crew is mutinous anyway). Stede could’ve been played as a Michael Scott character – oblivious and a danger to his crew  – and he is those things, but he’s also a guy who genuinely wants to create a supportive and nurturing environment for his traumatized crew. Whether that’s a realistic dream (and whether his crew appreciates those efforts), Stede is consistent. He doesn’t just talk a good talk. He stands by his ideals, and for that it helps to be naive.

Being a comedy, Our Flag Means Death isn’t under the same pressure to be authentic. The sunshine, while over the top, fits Stede’s new age ideas about pirating and then there’s also the fact that, of the three episodes I’ve seen so far, two of them are based mainly on land.

This, before anything else, is disappointing because it takes away from the claustrophobia of being stuck on a cramped ship with the same crew day after day. Besides the concept itself, and the potential within it, Our Flag Means Death biggest asset is its cast. Stede’s crew is basically made up of all of the scene stealers from other TV shows – Nat Faxon (Ben and Kate), Samson Kayo (Timewasters), Kristian Nairn (Game of Thrones). Claudia O’Doherty (Love) plays his wife. When the crew disembarks, though, they disperse, which means a few get spotlighted but then the rest disappear to make way for the guest stars. These, too, are of the highest caliber, from Gary Farmer to Leslie Jones, but if given a choice between guest stars and more time with the crew, my vote would be for the crew. That’s what TV is for, after all – getting to spend time with the characters, not adding more until the half hour is spread thin.

The series is also awfully quick to introduce Blackbeard (Taika Waititi). While Waititi is a big name (and for good reason), he’s in the trailer, and the show could’ve let the hype build longer before having him show up. Maybe that opinion will change after episode four but right now Blackbeard seems like the monster in a horror movie – the less seen of him, the better.

A few thoughts on the first three episodes:

  • Why is Stede’s ship called The Revenge? Is there something in particular Stede wants to avenge or is it generic – a name that appealed to him and that’s all?
  • Without knowing what future episodes will hold, Our Flag Means Death seemingly misses a few opportunities to establish some running gags. It would’ve been cool if each episode started or ended with Frenchie (Joel Fry) singing a song about what pirate life is really like.

The first three episodes of Our Flag Means Death will premiere March 3rd on HBO Max.

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