Our Flag Means Death Review: This Pirate Comedy Doesn't Walk The Plank, But Doesn't Find Buried Treasure, Either

In "Our Flag Means Death," we're transported back to the days when pirates roamed the seas, where a gentleman born into wealth named Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) flees his wife and children to pursue his dream of becoming as renowned as the pirate Blackbeard. The show is ostensibly based on the real-life Bonnet, reimagined as a comedy; a take on "The Office" if Michael Scott's employees complained about not murdering too infrequently. 

Created by David Jenkins, who also created the TBS sci-fi comedy "People of Earth," "Our Flag Means Death" has another big name attached: Taika Waititi. Waititi not only executive produces and directs the pilot of "Our Flag Means Death" — he also plays the infamous Blackbeard, who takes an interest in Bonnet and becomes more than just a cameo role in the series. Given Waititi is attached to the series, it's not surprising to say the show is funny. But "Our Flag Means Death" is not simply the pirate version of "The Office" or "What We Do In The Shadows" — in its best moments it also provides comedic commentary on the inequities of the time.

"Our Flag Means Death," sadly, is also not as funny as the aforementioned shows. That's not to say there aren't plenty of laughs — it's funnier than a lot of comedies out there right now — but it doesn't meet the admittedly very high bar of "Shadows." Waititi's Blackbeard is also not Waititi at his best — he plays the part of the ruthless pirate adequately, but the portrayal is uninspired and doesn't hold a torch to his performances in other works, such as playing Hitler in "Jojo Rabbit" or even the laidback Korg in the MCU.

A strong ensemble cast

Many of the other performances, however, are inspired. Darby captures Stede's earnestness and vulnerability with comedic flourish, and the actors who play Stede's crew members excellently portray their characters' own idiosyncrasies, with some characters like Joel Fry's Frenchie and Nathan Foad's Lucius deserving an extra callout for bringing their pirating counterparts to hilarious yet heartfelt life. The show is also uplifted by Fred Armisen and Leslie Jones delivering their comedic style with swashbuckling flair to smaller roles (small, at least, for the first five episodes).

The show works best when it plays off how the pirate life was an egalitarian refuge of the time — in an era of rampant slavery, everyone in the piracy world is treated the same, whether they're Black, queer, or female. Stede, who was of the gentleman class before pursuing his pirate aspirations, appears to not have embraced the classism/racism/misogyny of the world he grew up in, at least in part because he was always ostracized in that world. Instead, Stede aims to create his own world, one based on the romanticism of the pirate life but also one that includes telling stories to the crew at bedtime and minimal murdering. 

The show's sharpest moments are when Stede and his crew are thrust into dealings with the so-called gentlemanly class, who are portrayed as bullying buffoons and/or sadistic a-holes. This dynamic is the most interesting (and funniest) part of the series. In later episodes, some of this focus falls to the wayside to spend time on Blackbeard having what one would today call a mid-life crisis. I hope later episodes in the season focuses more on the former, however, as that made for more compelling — and humorous — watching.

"Our Flag Means Death" premieres on HBO Max on March 3, 2022. It continues with three episodes March 10, 2022, two episodes on March 17, 2022, and concludes with two episodes on March 24.