This review contains spoilers for the first season of “Our Flag Means Death.”
As the determinedly quirky pirate comedy “Our Flag Means Death” sailed through its first season on HBO Max last year (Season 2 begins Thursday on the renamed Max), its cultish bona fides were attested to by the alt-comedy brand names studding its roster of guest stars: Fred Armisen, Will Arnett, Tim Heidecker, Kristen Johnston, Leslie Jones, Nick Kroll, Kristen Schaal.
But the name that adheres most closely to “Our Flag Means Death” (which was created by David Jenkins) is that of Taika Waititi, who plays Blackbeard, one half of the show’s star-crossed pair of 18th-century pirate-captain lovers. And the jack-of-all-television-trades Waititi is the common thread among a peak-TV trifecta of expressive, textured, cognoscenti-approved comedy series, serving variously as a performer, writer, director, executive producer and creator on “Our Flag” and on FX’s “Reservation Dogs” and “What We Do in the Shadows.”
As different in tone and style as those shows are, they share a commonality besides Waititi’s presence. Each takes fairly familiar elements of family and workplace comedy and puts them in a setting, real or fantastical — the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma, a nest of Staten Island vampires, a pirate ship with an overly sensitive crew — that isn’t the usual urban or suburban sitcom everyland.
The generally rapturous notices the shows have received read those transpositions as evidence of imagination and daring. Another reading is that they are successful strategies (if, in the case of “Reservation Dogs,” sincerely intentioned) for dressing up what are at heart conventional 21st-century comedies. The most successful of the three, to my mind, is Jemaine Clement’s “What We Do In the Shadows,” partly because of the hilariously hammy performances of its central cast and partly because it hews most closely to an old-school sitcom format, and benefits from those constraints.
“Our Flag,” in its first season, was a by now familiar brew of diffidence, indirection, bubbling aggression and ambient quirkiness — you could feel “The Office” hovering in the background. Its comic focus was inverting the clichés of the pirate romance: The hero, Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), was a petty nobleman escaping family life by living out his fantasies at sea, where his aversion to danger and his general incompetence made him a menace to his crew. Those sailors, in turn, were a resourceful but delicate bunch, prone to sulking and overthinking.
The show’s general likability was buttressed by a mild but genuine warmth in the portrayal of the crew’s attitude toward Bonnet, a mix of cringing embarrassment and a gradually developing sense of devotion and protectiveness. There were also the pleasures of Rory Kinnear’s absolutely committed performance as twin Royal Navy prigs, both accidentally brought low by Bonnet, and Mark Mothersbaugh’s lo-fi score, with its interpolations of Fleetwood Mac and Cat Stevens.
And the show’s distinctiveness was ensured by the relationship between the peaceable Bonnet and the seemingly bloodthirsty Bluebeard, a will-they-or-won’t-they attraction with which we were teased throughout the season. (As a counterpoint, another pair of sailor lovers, played by Nathan Foad and Matthew Maher, openly displayed their ardor.)
Season 1 ended with Bonnet and Blackbeard separated and Blackbeard, thinking he had been dumped, reverting to his murderous piratical persona. Season 2, predictably, takes on the task of getting them back together. (Seven of eight episodes were available for review.) And boy, does it take that task seriously. It’s a startling example of what can happen when you take a show whose laughs are already offhand and attenuated and dial down the humor even further.
In the new season, romance and its accompanying psychological back stories take center stage. And while that undercooked romance is still played for laughs in minor ways, we are now asked to care about it in a way that’s ruinous for the comedy. Darby, a talented comedian, and Waititi, who as a performer has charisma but not a lot of range, work hard but can’t bring much genuine feeling to a relationship that functioned better in cardboard form.
The shift in focus also takes time and impact away from the rest of the very capable cast of regulars, including, among many others, Foad, Maher, Joel Fry, Samson Kayo and Ewen Bremner. And, noticeably, the revolving door for comedy luminaries in guest roles has closed — only Jones reappears, and the most recognizable guests are probably Minnie Driver and Bronson Pinchot.
You could take that as an improvement — a departure from an insular, comedy-world clubbiness. But to the extent that a show like “Our Flag Means Death” succeeds, the clubbiness is kind of the point. The jokes may be mild, but they work because everyone is in on them.