Our Flag Means Death, TV series, 2022
I’m going to mix things up with my staff pick this week and write about a TV series I enjoyed. I don’t watch a ton of TV. My wife and I often watch an episode while we eat dinner, and afterward she begs to keep watching while I try to get us to go in the living room to listen to records. While I find the good in most records I listen to, I’m not impressed with most of what I see on TV. The things I like tend toward the silly and the absurd. What We Do in the Shadows is probably my favorite current TV series, if that is any indication.
My wife Jet recommended that I watch Our Flag Means Death even though she had already watched the entire first season while I was away on tour. I gave it a try for a couple of reasons. First, it’s set in the 18th century. Longtime readers will know that I did my PhD in 18th century studies and I still have a fondness for the art, architecture, fashion, and literature from that period. Second, the lead role in Our Flag Means Death is played by Rhys Darby, whom I loved in his roles as the manager Murray in Flight of the Conchords and as the leader of the werewolf pack in the original film version of What We Do in the Shadows.
Our Flag Means Death starts as a farce, following Rhys Darby in his role as Stede Bonnet, a wealthy aristocrat who abandons his family and estate in order to become a pirate (Bonnet was a real person, upon whom the story is loosely based). Bonnet buys a ship and hires a crew, and hilarity ensues as they embark upon the pirate life. Bonnet’s crew is just as inept as he is, but many of the best jokes come out of Bonnet’s inability to turn his back on his previous lifestyle, either its creature comforts or its deeper moral and philosophical assumptions. For instance, Bonnet’s captain’s quarters are outfitted with a massive library and an enormous wardrobe, the latter of which supplies Bonnet with ridiculous outfits that gain him no respect from fellow pirates or potential adversaries.
When Bonnet encounters the legendary pirate Blackbeard in the series’ fourth episode, the stage is set for even more fish out of water silliness. In one of my favorite episodes, Bonnet takes Blackbeard to a high society party full of foppish aristocrats wearing massive wigs and pancake makeup, with Bonnet teaching Blackbeard the art of passive aggression. (This episode’s guest stars Nick Kroll and Kristen Schaal are hilarious too.)
I enjoyed all the silliness, but I probably wouldn’t be writing about this show in my staff pick if it weren’t for the final two or three episodes, where the show takes an unexpected turn. It’s not so much a plot twist as a wholesale reconfiguration of the show… what happens in the final few episodes essentially changes the show’s genre and makes you look back on everything that happened earlier with fresh eyes. I can see why Jet wanted to watch the entire series again.
If you decide to give Our Flag Means Death a try, do your best to avoid spoilers. I worry I’ve already revealed too much, but it’s not just the surprise of what happens that’s so exciting. It’s the subtlety, depth, and beauty with which it’s executed. There’s a second season on the way too, so now is the perfect time to catch up.