TV: Our Flag Means Death (Season 1)

When Our Flag Means Death started trending, it seemed worth pursuing in a hurry, before the spoilers started flying. This historical comedy on the high seas fictionalizes the unlikely journey of Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), a wealthy aristocrat who abandons his family, builds a ship, and sets out to prove himself as an adventurous pirate. The catch: the gentle, educated Bonnet has absolutely no skill at piracy. This is certainly not lost on his crew, but even after he wins them over, he finds himself in between two worlds, catching the unwanted attention of both the British Navy, such as old grade-school rival Nigel Badminton (Rory Kinnear), and legitimate pirates like the legendary Blackbeard (Taika Waititi). Despite his ineptitude, Bonnet eventually does make an odd little place for himself in the world as the “gentleman pirate.”

Initially, Our Flag Means Death looked like it might one of those viral pop-culture phenomena that isn’t entirely up my street, an upbeat, light comedy hinging on one simple inversion: what if a man, cultured and kind, tried to apply himself to a ruthless and brutal life? It possesses a certain vague resemblance to Monty Python, what with its historical trappings, costumery, and irreverent turn-expectation-on-its-ear tone, and that always scores points with me. But the early episodes struck me as pleasant without being laugh-out-loud funny. The show’s deeper appeal didn’t set in until halfway through, when sketch-comedy simplicity blossoms into a more serial structure. Around this time, Bonnet’s crew starts to rally around his unconventional leadership, even as an unexpected chemistry develops between Bonnet and Blackbeard. The uplifting found-family vibe, in and of itself, isn’t enough to warrant the show’s hype, but the relationship between Bonnet and Blackbeard—played with slowly mounting sweetness by Darby and Waititi—turns out to be the heart of the series. Our Flag Means Death, without initially looking like it, is a genuine gay romance in a sitcom, which turns the corner on queerbaiting and accelerates into genuine queerness. Suddenly, the buzz makes sense; from a representational point of view, for many viewers, this is a long-awaited groundbreaker. As the show finds its path, the humor gets better and better, in service to the unlikely central relationship and the many increasingly likable people in the crew. So far, it’s still not quite hall-of-hame material for me, but it has such a winning spirit and addresses such a needed niche than I came away charmed and wholly invested.

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