In which our intrepid crew discusses the cleverly-titled first episode of Our Flag Means Death, “Pilot”
[00:00:00] Our theme music is “Jolly Roger (Pirate Sea Shanty) by Pond5 artist craigbotes
[00:18:49] WHAT is going on here?!
[01:00:46] “Public Relations,” by amcw177 (on AO3)
Lori: Hi, and welcome to The Shipping Cast. We’re here today to talk about episode one of Our Flag Means Death, and we wanted to kick off with just kind of a round of general reactions to the first episode, which was of course wonderful and got us hooked. And so, I’m just going to go around the room – we have a room, it’s virtual – and ask people what their first impressions of episode one were. And I’d like to start today with Kavita Mudan Finn
Kavita: Well, I will be honest, I was not entirely sure by the end of the first episode. I thought it was very funny, but I have a very low tolerance for cringe comedy, and I was a little worried that it was veering in that direction. Because I liked Stede from the get-go. He reminded me of myself in all of the best and worst ways. [laughs] And I remember being a little concerned by the end of the first episode: ‘Oh no, it’s going to be one of those shows about how Stede does everything wrong.’ But one of the things that kept me going was that, despite sort of Stede’s mishaps all over the place, there was this very kind of warm feeling. Like, even when the crew was frustrated with him, they were still like, ‘Oh, but he’s trying. He’s doing his best.’ And I did appreciate that, and that was very much what kept me going. That and also just the awesomeness of Stede’s whole set-up on that ship.
Lori : Yeah, absolutely. I agree completely. So, Evan, let’s move onto you. Evan Hayles Gledhill, what was your initial take on episode one?
Evan: I’m going to echo Kavita on this one, actually, that my initial reaction was, ‘Oh no, there’s going to be lots of cringe humour’. As other people have said within this group, I thought it was going to be ‘The Office on Sea’ and The Office has never been my thing. The UK version or the American version, really. But I also knew going into it that we had Taika Waititi, Rhys Darby. I knew some of the other actors from the UK context, and I thought, ‘I’m going to keep watching. It’s funny, I think that there’s enough other stuff here that’s going to take my interest and keep it.’ And I’ve really enjoyed it more on a second watch through, because I could disregard some of the cringier elements knowing that it had, as Kavita said, that lovely, kind atmosphere. And it’s really only – the only bit of unwatchable cringe for me is episode three, the intro to the pirate bar. I just I have to skip it. I know it’s coming. I have to skip it. So, that’s how bad my cringe aversion is.
Lori: EJ, how about you?
EJ: As boring as this is, I am going to echo some of the things that Evan and Kavs have said. I’m not a huge fan of cringe comedy, and at first, I was like – because it does have sort of Michael Scott vibes at the beginning – but they do a fantastic job of immediately establishing reasons we should like Stede. Despite also establishing very quickly how completely out of his depth he is, both the flashbacks to how he got there that we get really quickly, and then, of course, dealing with the British officers. And it was great, I think, in this era of recognition of ‘copaganda’ to immediately be like, ‘Nope, the British are the enemy, the British Navy are the enemy, they are bullies, they are awful’. The fact that it actually deals with race, ’cause at first, like, are they just going to do the kind of color-blind thing. But it’s like, you know, they do in this subtle way deal with that. You know, they established the British Navy is bad. They make Stede sympathetic, even though he’s kind of cringe-sympathetic, especially at first. And then I had that other knowledge of where things were going to go, from having encountered the series first on social media.
Kavita: The race thing was … it caught me by surprise, I will be honest, ’cause I have spent such a long time watching period drama that’s either completely lily-white the whole way through, or that sort of only deals with race in extremely fraught, extremely sort of dramatic moments. Or it’s turned into the butt of a joke, or anything like that. Like this, it was just very subtle, and it was just right there. It just – it jumped out at me for how natural it felt, for how kind of, like, ‘Yeah, this is what microaggressions look like, and we’re just gonna deal with it’. And also showing the way that Stede reacted to those microaggressions, as well, really kind of inured to the benefit of his character.
Because, like, first of all, as EJ says, it does a great job of establishing that the British are the bullies. The British are the ones who are just going to be the bad guys in this scenario. And it also showed how Stede is not like them, even though he can speak their language in the way that he does. Like he can communicate with them, and he can kind of level with them in a way that his crew can’t, but he is not one of them. And I think it really kind of made that distinction clear.
Evan: I think that’s a really great point, Kavita. It’s about the shared values, and I think that that’s one of the things that kept me watching, was the show suggested that the values being represented by certain characters were not the values that the show was going to uphold, which isn’t just about race, but also other aspects of what we might call body politics. So, the fact that Rory Kinnear’s character, Captain Badminton, is a horrible little bully, and he is smug and condescending, and he’s the one who is shaming people for how they live, what they look like; for being effeminate or being fat, in his view. And I thought, ‘OK, this might make me uncomfortable’. There’s a lot of like body stuff coming out here, but it is all in the mouth of the guy it’s leading up to and justifying basically his murder.
The fact that someone gets murdered for basically being a body-shaming, racist git who likes to lord it over other people – great! And you don’t bring that in, in the values of the show, like the fact that we have this great diversity of cast who are not made to feel uncomfortable about themselves as the butt of other people’s jokes. That was a huge part of the atmosphere.
EJ: There isn’t body-shaming. They’re not making fun of Stede’s appearance. Like, they’re making fun of the fact that he’s completely incompetent. They probably think he’s ridiculous, but that’s not tied in with ideas of, say, effeminacy or whatever. There are jokes that aren’t being made, that so frequently are being made even by characters we’re supposed to like. I mean, the fact that there are shows that you can watch, and they’ll be great on some axes, but they’ll still get in a fat joke. Or they’ll be great on some things, but they’ll still end – we don’t see them doing it. There’s plenty that’s risible about the characters, but that’s not what they’re going for. There are certain traits they are not going for, and the fact that they avoided that from the get-go, that was a really good sign.
Evan: Yeah, to follow on from that, it is the joke not made, isn’t it? Like, OK, that’s a baseline of easy low hanging fruit. They do not pick the low hanging oranges here, do they? Like, ‘OK, we could make that joke, is it actually funny? Who’s going to be laughing at this?’ I think that’s one of the things that I really think is really important about thinking of this as an ensemble comedy. ‘Is every person in our ensemble going to laugh from the same perspective?’ And the dinner party scene shows just how that’s not working, like who laughs at the table? The joke on-screen and the joke off-screen is the same thing at that point, right? That we are brought into this crew, to sit with them and feel uncomfortable, and that’s why I find it funnier on the second-time round. It’s because I’m looking more at what’s going on in the background. I’m looking more at the reactions. I’m looking more at the body language of the pirates trying to pretend to be comfortable around the British, and the British getting more and more uncomfortable. And the fact that it results in this explosion of both violence and humor, and screaming. It has this really nicely constructed catharsis right within it. And now that I’m talking about it, I’m like, ‘actually this is a much better first episode than…’. You know, I’ve gone, ‘I didn’t really like it,’ and I’m like, ‘Actually, now I talk about it, I do quite like it.’
Kavita: I think that really gets at the difference between watching and rewatching? Because when you’re rewatching it, you’ve already gone through all the uncomfortable feelings. You know that they’re not – as EJ pointed out – you know that they’re not going to be sort of warranted in the end. And you can really zero in on, not just the basic stuff that you notice the first time, but all the stuff you didn’t notice the first time. ‘Cause, I definitely noticed that when I rewatched the episode, I was paying a lot more attention to, not necessarily the dialogue, but the facial expressions, the body language, the way that the characters were occupying different space. And one of the things that I definitely hit on was when they were – anytime Rory Kinnear’s character Badminton was on the screen, he was always kind of overtaking the screen, and they had all of these close-ups, and it was incredibly claustrophobic. And they did such a good job of kind of making him this larger-than-life character, that when, of course, he pops back up later on in the series as a different character, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, of course this guy is too big. He’s not going to, he’s not just going to go down in one, like, being accidentally killed by Stede, there’s going to be more to it than that.’
EJ: We may touch on this a little bit more when we start talking about genre, but, you know, any first episode has to do so much work to establish things. And this does do a great job of establishing, you know, the Stede-versus-crew dynamics, a lot of Stede’s kind-of personal things. It sets up that now he’s really committed to a life of piracy, in spite of being inadequate, because he’s just killed a British officer, you know, and done all that other stuff. So, it’s like, ‘Nope, he, he’s in it, whether he likes it or not.’
But we also see some thawing of the relationship between Stede and his crew at that point that can then develop, so when you go back and watch it ,then that’s where you can say, like, ‘Oh, they’re setting this up’, so we can see the trajectory now that we know where it’s going. But it’s, I think it’s really successful as a first episode, in terms of what a first episode needs to do.
Evan: Just to follow on from EJ as well, having said it works really well on rewatching, and it’s doing all this really clever stuff that possibly you don’t pick up the first time through, I think it’s really great that they dropped a couple of episodes at the same time as well. Because if you autocue and watch through to the second one, it’s going to be a richer experience. You’re going to get new kinds of humor. You’re going to see some of those threads come through, especially with things like the encounter of the indigenous peoples. So, the uncomfortable things, or the things you didn’t like so much, if you can watch two episodes at once, they’re not necessarily relying on us all enjoying all of the first episode on its own, as a stand out. And I think that’s one of the difficulties for sitcoms in the traditional era of linear broadcast television, was you had 26 minutes at most, 21 minutes in the US because you might have two ad breaks, to get across a lot and to hook people in. And so, I think that this comedy has benefited from its platform, that you could watch 2 episodes. So, if you weren’t going to get it, the second one might grab you more.
Kavita: And that’s actually how I watched it the first time, was we watched the first episode and then sort of looked at each other and went, ‘yeah, let’s watch the next one ’cause it’s here’. And I think we watched the first three kind of at a stretch, the first time, and that really, especially adding the third episode in as well, gave it just this wonderful arc.
Lori: I will jump to my first impressions, because literally this is all I have to add for this one. But I was rewatching it – actually right before we started recording – and it just, you know, I came back to it again with having seen comments to our first episode talking about how, ‘oh I’m glad I’m not the only one who saw Stede as like a teacher’. That was the thing that stood out to me in this, you know, most recent rewatch, and I’ve rewatched it, you know, three, four hundred times now. And I guess this is, this is where I both lean away from and lean into the cringe factor. I identify so strongly with Stede in his most teacherly moments that I’m willing to sort of keep going just because, you know, they’re like telling the story of my life, and probably a lot of lives in this room alone. You know when he’s saying, ‘And some of us will, you know, perhaps come back and be mentally devastated, but still alive. And what do we do? Anyone?’ And you know, and they’re like missing it. And then he’s like, ‘other suggestions?’ And, you know, it’s like, ‘oh God, it’s me, it’s me.’
And then, you know, when it comes to the flags, he’s walking around commenting on what everybody is doing, and if you have ever taught in a classroom where you use group work, that is the quintessential experience of doing group work. The teacher walks around and tries to make any kind of relevant comment on what people are doing, you know, and so when Oluwande is showing him his little pom-pom – which is adorable – and it creates, you know, each interaction that he has during group work with the flag creates character – and it’s such a small little thing – but Oluwande is showing his pom-pom and explaining it, and he’s so earnest. And we’re like, ‘yeah, these guys may want to mutiny, they may want to kill him, but they also are like, they’re buying into it. You know, they’re there with him.’ And then he goes to Wee John and says, ‘that’s a beautiful fabric’ and, you know, Wee John’s just like ‘Oh yeah, I used to make, you know, clothes for my mother,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, and now you’re a pirate.’ He’s validating, you know, he is a teacher in all of the, sort of, you know, the whole spectrum ranging from total cringe, and this isn’t working, and nobody does the reading, to this kind of validating these ideas that people have. And I just I latched onto that.
And, you know, so, then even when he says, you know, ‘you could rephrase that. What’s one thing you change around here, if you could?’ It’s a student evaluation! And I love that. And then when we get to the end, and every one of those flags is flying – remember the best one was going to be their flag, and he puts all of them up. That is the sort of quintessential expression of how hard it is to grade. Because, you know, how do you pass judgement on something that somebody has put their heart into? You know, so it’s like, ‘no, everybody gets to go up on the on the flagpole’. It’s an, ‘I can’t decide kind of thing’ and I just, that whole sort of teacherly aspect of it – everything, you know, the anxiety of teaching, to the nurturing of teaching, and everything in between. Just watching it this last time, that really, really struck me.
EJ: I was going to say, it’s especially powerful, I think, ’cause again at the start he’s sort of that Michael Scott, as he’s telling Lucius he has this other vision of how piracy works. But then when you start seeing his own background, and you start seeing his own experience, like, for me, what really resonated is the fact that he is coming back from this abusive setting: his family, his… And then the fact that he clearly grew up with these assholes who, again kind of like cops, were bullies as kids and are now like grown-up bullies with even more power. And the fact that he is not just coming into this setting with these ideals, but is coming into this setting with these ideals and this background of abuse, the fact that he is going out of his way to go into this setting that is usually abusive, and saying, like, ‘I want to see if I can make this not abusive, I want to see if I can make this better. I want to see if I can create the kind of environment that I clearly would have loved to have had, and did not have.’
And that makes it, I think,, much more powerful than he’s trying to do arts and crafts thing and trying to pay them, whether or not they’re doing stuff, and things like that. You know. I get where they’re coming from, where they think he’s crazy, but it’s just much more powerful to see him trying to do these things, and trying to do this differently, when you see that his own background – while he absolutely has so much more privilege than anyone else on the ship, and that needs to be engaged with and the whole doesn’t get that other people don’t choose to be pirates – the fact that he’s still in this situation and his goal is to not replicate abusive structures, but to create a non-abusive structure. He’s not ‘I’m in charge now and I can do whatever I want, so I’m at the top of the food chain, and now I get to be the one bullying people.’ He’s saying, I’m going to put myself in a position where I can control the environment, and I’m going to control it to take out the abuse, to try to make it a healthy, good environment for everyone in it.’ That really spoke to me.
Evan: I was just gonna say, I kind of hope that none of my students ever find this podcast, because the idea that they’re getting a disturbing insight into what we’re thinking as we walk around their group work, and that I am going to be saying – as you put it – anything that validates them.
But this idea of, like, that you come in from – you bring to television, you bring to teaching, you bring to the things that you do and enjoy in your life, what you have taken from the past – and whether you want to replicate, or whether you want to undermine and change something, I think that that’s one of the interesting things about this show in terms of the things that we’re going to talk about this episode. In terms of its genre, in terms of its engagement with historical fiction, in terms of its structure as a sitcom – is that it’s made by people who are very critically aware of their own structures of power. The people producing this sat in a room, a deliberately constructed writers’ room, that is all on those same themes, you know, thinking about ‘OK, who are we putting on screen? Why are we putting on the screen? What have we done before?’ Like the avoidance of fat jokes and stuff like that where we talked about. Like, it’s so nicely, neatly about the things it’s doing. I think that’s one of the reasons that we all enjoy this so much. It’s such a rich text, as people can see themselves in it, obviously everyone’s just said that, but also that they are engaging with their themes in such multi-layered ways that it just stands up to rewatch and rewatch and rewatch.
Lori: I do have one question for everyone, and because every time I see it I can’t decide what my – what my take is, but there’s that scene…. well, first we see the shot of Stede having kind of anxiety, and remembering back to Mary and the kids, where Mary and the kids are down at the other side of the table. She’s asking about the horses, and then he kind of chimes in with his very gentle, you know, ‘I like Arthur, he’s got kind eyes,’ or whatever he says. And then we have another shot of them with Stede down at the end of the table, and they’re all having a good time. Is that a memory or a wish?
Evan: I think that’s a really interesting framing, especially of this show, that – as we will find out in later episodes – messes with perspectives. I mean, we got the undead Badminton haunting Stede, so we know that perspective is not necessarily reliable. Buttons talking to Olivia: does Olivia actually talk back? Or is this Buttons’ perception, you know, and does it really matter? This is a show that’s offering us multiple opportunities to interpret it in multiple ways, isn’t it? So whether these are Stede’s actual memories, whether he really was distanced from his family, whether he is exaggerating his perspectives… that’s the point, really. It’s about our perceptions of things, and going into them, and how that influences our responses to things, as EJ just so beautifully said, right? He’s bringing all this experience and he’s thinking about how that impacts his decision making, and if he can reframe those memories, maybe it’s like reframing the criticism.
Lori: We did want to talk about a few specific things in relation to the show, and the first one that we wanted to pick up on was this issue of juxtaposition in the first episode, where incongruent things are put together in such a way that they do even more interesting things in the juxtaposition. And we’re going to begin with Kavita.
Kavita: So, one of the things that is really fun about Taika Waititi’s work in general, but also just the general kind of tenor of this show, is that it juxtaposes things you do not expect. And one of the things that he juxtaposes is genre. Obviously it is a period drama; it is a drama that is set on a pirate ship, presumably sometime in the 18th century; it’s a little bit squishy about time, but that’s a that’s part of the story, that’s part of how it goes. Really, all pirate narratives are kind of squishy about time, in their own way. But it juxtaposes that with what is basically an office comedy, an office sitcom. As EJ mentioned earlier, there is kind of a Michael Scott vibe early on. And it’s, and it’s the juxtaposition that makes it work, I think. It’s taking these two things that normally have very little in common, and I think that’s part of what allows the space for that, for the kind of comedy that we enjoy so much about it. The one that doesn’t make the obvious joke. The one that looks at the obvious joke, sidesteps it, and goes in a very different direction, and I think it’s the juxtaposition that allows for that to a degree.
Evan: So, building on that, the fact that it’s 1717, as we see on the title card, right? I think that that starts sets us up for the juxtaposition immediately. We get a title card with what we might call an expected font, even, for a pirate drama, right? It’s old type. So it looks like it could be type from that era. And we get a very specific introduction: “1717: The Golden Age of Piracy”, right? We’re being set-up for period drama. We get an introduction of our character: ‘Stede Bonnet sets out’, and before the last line appears, we start getting a jaunty folk tune. So, the last line appears in red: ‘things did not go as planned’. Depending on your musical sting, we could be heading into horror à la The Terror. We could be heading into serious high drama à la Black Sails. We’ve got this potential for a threat. There’s an underlying threat in the red-on-black, the echoing colours the pirate flag. The Golden Age of Piracy, all this, kind of – we’re bringing our experience of watching other shows to this title card. And then it’s all undercut, with Joel Fry seemingly extemporizing on the theme of imminent death in a very, very silly song, you know.
So, we go straight from genre expectation, to undercutting it with humor. And then genre expectation again: we’re on a boat and people are playing dice or cards, they’re gambling, to undercutting it with the workplace humor. The arguing about what we’re supposed to be doing here, why we’re doing it. So, we get this really nice immediate set-up of, ‘This is what you expect from certain genres: you’ve got expectations of setting, year, etc.’ Again, the fact that people like Blackbeard turn up dressed like Mad Max later, if we haven’t been told very specifically, this is 1717, would that be as funny? Would it be as funny that the workplace comedy and the lovey-dovey inclusiveness of Stede and his managerial-speak be as funny if we didn’t know specifically a time period. If they’re, they’re saying it’s 1717, but someone still talking about a people-first positive management experience, or whatever. The juxtaposition depends on the year.
EJ: I wanted to talk a little bit about a different type of juxtaposition that we see, that’s super important for setting up the comedy, and that’s the juxtaposition of violence and humor that they’ve got to do. Which is kind of a tightrope: like, how do you make these characters who are murdering people, or want to murder people, or are annoyed that they’re not able to murder people, the heroes? You know? How do you balance that out? And of course, they’re helped by the fact that, historically, we have this weird fascination with certain types of criminals, pirates being amongst them culturally, but it makes me think a lot of What We Do in the Shadows, the film, specifically, just because Taika’s a little more directly in that one than he is in the TV show. And how you have these murderous creatures that are eating people throughout the filming, who are enacting violence on people throughout the filming, and how that is written so that you’re still on their side, even as you understand that this is horrible. These are horrible monsters that keep killing people, but are still somehow sympathetic and funny, and other things like that. And that kind of handling – handling violence, handling who you’re allowed to feel sympathetic for, who you are going to feel sympathetic for, how disposable characters that you’re not to feel sympathetic for end up being within the context of the show – that I feel like, that’s very much a vibe that gets pulled in, in Our Flag Means Death, as way of handling the fact that like we’re going to be amping up the violence. The first episode, not a whole lot of violence, but it’s coming—oh, is it coming. How are we going to do that in way that makes us still root for the characters?
Evan: Absolutely, and I think that’s one of the other genres that we can bring into this show, in later episodes more, is we get touches of the action movie, right? And those have long had a sort of awkward relationship with comedy and violence because, usually they’re copaganda right? Well, at least the American ones very often are. It’s usually, Sylvester Stallone through to Mark Wahlberg, they are usually law enforcement. Yet balancing that desire for catharsis through violence, right? That it is nice to watch the racists get stabbed in the eye. Like, we can’t deny it. Because we have all had those moments, where we’re just like ‘I just want to kill that person’ and we say it as a joke. I mean, every culture on Earth has a joke about, you know: ‘Oh, die!’ We use it as a linguistic placeholder, almost, in many languages, and it’s an expression, right? ‘Oh, fuck off and die.’ Or, ‘oh, why don’t you just go, you know, jump off…’ a what’s it? ‘Take a long walk off a short pier’ is my mum’s favorite one. She said that to me as a child, right? Like that’s, that’s acceptable. We use violence and comedy in these ways of expressing tension.
And we say, oh, they do it really, really well. But I think that they come from a perspective of it just being so enmeshed in our expectations now. And it’s one of the things that, as EJ says, we enjoy about certain criminal elements, that they get to fight back, and they get to do intensive murder, but we only like it when it’s directed against the right people.
Kavita: The one thing I wanted to add was related to what Evan was saying about the juxtaposition of comedy and violence. I have a, there is a quotation that I always used to love to use when I would teach Shakespearean comedy, in particular. Because, again, Shakespearean comedy, lots of violence sublimated into the comedic language. It’s just there. But it’s a quotation from Mel Brooks: ‘Tragedy is when I get a paper cut. Comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die.’ And I love to use that to describe the ending of The Merchant of Venice, where it is supposed to be comedy, but it is not! What was comedic to the audiences of the 1590s in London? Not funny anymore! And it’s one of those things that, of course, like productions have had to grapple with, and this is related to the whole question of period drama and periodicity, because you do have to grapple with those things. And you have to deal with the fact that, yes, these were not only pirates who murdered people, these were also participants in the slave trade, participants in this global network of extreme horrific exploitation. But, it is still part – but we still have this fascination with them, it’s always been there. Like ever since – even when these pirates were alive, people were fascinated by them.
You have the broadsheets. You have the ballads. You have the… I don’t necessarily know if there were plays made about them while they were alive, but there were definitely plays that were made about them after. You see it with pirates, you see with gangsters. I admit I love mafia films, because they remind me of revenge tragedies, because everyone is dead at the end, and they all had it coming.
But there is very much this idea that there is a certain kind of criminality that is fascinating, but you have to view it within a very specific bubble, in a very specific context. As soon as these characters step out of that bubble, they have to be punished for it.
EJ: It just made me think that Stede is very much a pirate fanboy. In some ways, he’s sort of outside of the time, blah blah blah, whatever, juxtaposition. He’s us in some ways, in that sense of, ‘I’m going to go off to sea and become a pirate and be free.’ And just as he is being asked to deal with some of the actual realities of being a pirate in the first episode, the show is kind of pointing out it’s not quite as simple as that either, for a number of reasons. Because he’s, you know, he probably has the t-shirts. Except that he would never wear a t-shirt, but otherwise he would have the t-shirt. He’s got his books on pirates. He’s got his, you know, he’s got his impressive woodcut collection. Got his, he’s got his teen magazines of pirates somewhere. You just know.
Lori: He knew where to go in that book for the picture of Blackbeard. He just went right to the book and opened it up.
Evan: The juxtaposition that we’ve got, right, we’re talking about like the ways that genre meshes, the ways that representation happens. And I think that’s one of the things that I really like about drawing on the humor, is the fact that sometimes the juxtaposition is also between what sort of comedy you thought you were watching, and what kind of comedy you are in fact watching. For me, that kind of happens a little bit when the, in the very first moments of the raid, where we’ve got this very talky comedy, so far, that’s all about dialogue, and then we get some really excellent physical comedy from Rhys Darby on the rope ladder. And you realize that there’s gonna be more coming that’s more incorporated, like that. That you’re not just limited to one style as well. So, you’ve got, we’re watching a pirate comedy, then we move into the workplace comedy as we get shown round the ship, and we get an introductory element to it. And then we get, as you say, the violence, and there’s a little bit of a catharsis commentary on race and class going on. Then we get flashbacks, right? So, OK, we’re going to be doing character-based development, this isn’t just a single specific sitcom, as in the situation comedy. It’s not all about the people on the boat. We’re also going to go to other places. We’re going to talk about other aspects of their lives, and they’re funnier because you’re not expecting them necessarily. Because things happen that are coming at you from different perspectives. Different styles of humor layered over the top of each other.
If you’re watching something traditionally sitcomy, for example, if you’re expecting like King of Queens or something like that, you can tune out a little. You know, it’s background television. You know what the setups are. You know where the punch lines are coming from. If you’re watching something that layers up like this, then sometimes you don’t know where the punch line is coming from, so you get surprised by the joke itself, which I think is a really, really nice thing about Taika Waititi’s comedy often, as well. Like, I was not expecting the priest at the funeral in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. That just completely threw me, in this, ‘Oh my God, this is an unexpected death in this narrative. Oh, holy crap, I’m going to die laughing at this really inappropriate speech.’ I like these things that come out of the left field in these comedies.
Lori: We know that David Jenkins has been having a hard time getting the blue check next to his name on Twitter, and there was a really funny bit of humor that was going around in a post. He’s all, you know, ‘no, I created it’ and they’re like, Twitter’s like ‘No, Taika created it. But, Taika, you already have a blue check by your name’. Like, ‘I’m not Taika, I’m David Jenkins and I created it’, and they’re like, ‘sure, sure Jemaine’. And it was, it was actually quite good. But one of the strengths here is that he seems to – and this is David Jenkins – he seems to jibe with what both of them bring to the table. I mean, everybody, obviously. But you know, this does, this first episode in particular does have very Taika Waititi moments, in terms of its structure. The tour around the ship, in particular, is you know sort of reminiscent in its juxtaposition of, kind of, as Evan would say, you know workplace comedy and piracy, you know this incongruity between pirates and the things that they seem to be getting into. The rec room and the jam room, which I especially like, you know? So there are things that that jibe well, with what Taika Waititi does, and then these things that jibe really well with what Rhys Darby does in terms of physical comedy. And I just, you know, a shout out to that one-off line, ‘Take care of the plant!’ which is adorable. It’s really interesting, if you look at the original scripts, that the fishermen actually had a lot more dialogue early on than they ended up with. All they say is ‘we’re fishermen’ and ‘take care of the plant.’ And it gets really, you know, sort of shaved down, but in a way that makes it better, because there, you know, the whole thing is about Stede sort of going on about, you know, his piracy, and this act of piracy. And I do love how the plant comes back in the end. Lots of things come back in the end.
But one of the things that I think also, and this is what you know Evan was talking about as well, in that bit from Hunt for the Wilderbeast, the juxtaposition of this really unexpected death and Taika’s performance as the minister doing whatever weirdass shit he does. Wilderpeople, sorry. So yeah, talking about you know what Evan was talking about in terms of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, we do have that kind of emotional juxtaposition as well. And that’s something that, I don’t know, did we know that Rhys Darby could do this? I’m not that familiar with his, sort of, body of work, but he does turn in an instant from, sort of, comic relief – not comic relief but sort of, you know, comic hero, cringe Captain, to somebody who is very clearly tortured by aspects of his past. Who is deeply anxious and whose anxiety we see up until the very end of the episode. And that kind of emotional juxtaposition is, it’s right up there with what EJ was talking about in terms of violence, I think. These very serious things being played off, or played against, humor in ways that make them, I don’t know, that much more interesting.
If this was a straightforward drama and, you know, all we saw was Stede’s pain, that would be one kind of show, and that’s not at all what we’re watching. We’re watching somebody who is deeply endearing, completely embarrassing – I mean, he’s a dad, you know. I mean, I realize I said he was a teacher and he is. But he is also like a quintessential dad figure, Ship!Dad. He is, he’s Ship Dad! and I love that. I love the fact that he can be all of those things, somebody that you’d like to, you know, mutiny against and throw overboard. Somebody that, you know, when they give you some encouragement you’re like ‘Yeah, I am here for this, and I you know I’m gonna make the best flag you ever saw’, because you know, yes. And somebody who has his own kind of hidden things going on that we’re not necessarily, as the crew, not necessarily privy to. All of these things make him a wonderful dad. And that really wasn’t going anywhere but I just, I don’t know…
Evan: Just, uh, I’m not hugely familiar with Rhys Darby, but I think that the emotional resonance thing, like the underlying emotional reality – I didn’t know he could do dramatic moments as well as he did – but I think it’s something that we’ve seen in his comedy. Like, part of the reason Flight of the Conchords works, despite its absolute ridiculousness, right, is because you actually care about the people in it. And you do feel like they are struggling, like it wouldn’t be funny if they weren’t, which sounds horrible. But, I think that that idea of a level of emotional reality, an affective reality to his performance, that he can come across as very real and emotionally engaged, and a rounded person with more going on, has been central to his comic performances for a long time. So it’s nice to see him getting to flex, as Taika put in a recent interview, flex the comedy muscles and move into some more dramatic stuff.
Kavita: One thing that did occur to me, particularly during the scene with the flags, was yeah, this is the level of micromanagement you do with small children. There is a – like, there is a certain, it jumped out at me as a teacher, but it also jumped out at me as a parent of small children, like, ‘oh my goodness, yes’. The sort of going around like ‘OK, are you still doing the thing I asked you to do? Good. Are you, now what about you? Are you still doing the thing I asked you to do, OK?’ Good’, now I can sort of step back and let you continue to do the thing. And, also just the fondness, the real, sort of like ‘I really want you all to just have fun doing what we’re doing’. And I’m really invested in the outcome. I’m really invested in the outcome of all of us as kind of this ship family. And there’s very much the sort of crew rolling their eyes collectively at Stede the whole time, but also being like, ‘OK, yeah, he’s also he’s fine, were we’ll be fine with it ultimately.’
Lori: Yeah, I agree completely. It’s a very, it is a very, kind of – whether it’s teaching, whether it’s parenthood – it’s a very potentially nurturing position, and he works hard to make it nurturing rather than abusive. And so, even, you know, in terms of teaching, in terms of parenting, whatever it is that he’s trying to create on this ship – to sort of go back to what we were talking about at the beginning of the podcast – he is very actively choosing to create something different. And I mean even when, you know, when we have that that throwaway bit about how he pays his crew – which is historically true and does make you wonder what the hell was going on in historical Stede Bonnet’s mind, literally – but the way it’s sort of mobilized here, in the kind of creation of his character, as somebody who is fundamentally nurturing and who wants a family, and has found it in this oddest of places, is quite nice
Evan: I was going to say that, bringing it back to juxtaposition, like, again with the expectations, right, the expectation of the pirate ship as full of danger, which is repeated over and over again, but at the same time, as a place where – because of that danger, in a way – people have to rely on each other. People have to build these relationships. If you are not a good pirate captain, you will get thrown overboard with an anchor tied to your feet, right? So violence is the outcome of not having good social engagement on your ship, in a way. And whether you could do, whether you rule with an iron rod, you’re more likely, in a way, to get mutinied, right? ‘Cause you’ve gotta sleep sometime, and it doesn’t appear like there’s a lock on that cabin door. Let’s be honest, everyone just wanders in and out because it’s also the meeting room. It’s also a resource for the ship. I mean, it’s, that’s one of the things that you talk about, like all the things that Stede has put on the boat, right? There’s a lot of jokes about like the rec room, etc., but these places are all multipurpose spaces ’cause it’s a ship in the middle of the ocean, right? So, it’s storage, it’s sleeping quarters, it’s the gun deck, it’s the stores, it’s the hold, it’s–everything at once happens in the same spaces. So, the idea that you can escape from people? Absolutely not. You are around these people all day every day, which is the basis of sitcom right? That you are stuck with these humans, and the comedy but also the pathos comes from that.
Kavita: Yeah, I think, I really like, I really like that idea, the fact that the comedy comes from the fact that it’s all of these people who are thrown into this one – I mean that’s sitcom right there, Situational comedy. Like, the comedy comes from the situation. But in this particular case it is also coming from the fact that it is multiple situations all at once, and it acknowledges that there’s multiple situations happening. Which I don’t know is necessarily the case with sort of your traditional sitcom. There’s one type of comedic lens, and you generally sort of focus on that. But I think part of the strength of Our Flag Means Death is that it’s drawing on so many different situations, generic situations, and the comedy comes from where those situations clash or where they don’t clash.
Lori: That seems like a good point to move into another topic that we had wanted to cover today, and that is the function of sitcoms. And for this I’m going to hand it over to Evan.
Evan: The situation comedy. I mean I’m not going to give a history of the sitcom. I don’t think anyone would find that interesting. I think it’s lecture number one on a course that I was a teaching assistant on a while back, as well. So, situation comedy in the US developed out of, funnily enough, radios where you are literally like this: all in a room with a microphone, so you have the limited situation. Then when it transfers onto TV, one of the things that we all recognize about the, what sitcoms look like, developed in the 70s with these sets that are very stable and have multiple cameras pointed at them at the same time, so that they can capture the reaction shots and they can make them quickly. You block it like a stage play, you film it once, you move onto the next scene. So the live studio audience gets the joke the first time round, so that they don’t have to re-edit, it so that it’s cheap to produce. That’s why you get a lot of sitcoms. It was cheap, you don’t have that many sets because the situation is limited as well, so that’s developed differently now, and that also limited, stylistically, what this place could look like. For example, if you want to capture people from four different angles at once, the lighting has to be quite flat. You can’t do exciting and interesting things. So there’s limitations built into the form itself, and of course we’ve moved into single camera sitcoms. It’s a phrase that people like to use a lot about things like Modern Family and The Office, and they became really, really popular in the early 2000s. And British sitcoms had been using that for a lot longer, and I think that that’s really interesting about the way Our Flag Means Death – I see a lot of the British tradition of sitcom, more so necessarily than the American tradition of sitcom, and I am in no way familiar with if there is a Kiwi tradition of sitcom, so I can’t bring in what might be influencing those guys there from that.
But I think David Jenkins has very clearly watched a fair amount of British sitcoms growing up. So this, as a sitcom, it’s breaking some of the traditional rules, and we can call it a tradition of single camera sitcoms, now, because we’ve got many, many years of them, we don’t just have to be thinking about this like Friends-style, Seinfeld, set with the limited camera angles, but stylistically it’s incredibly rich for a sitcom. It’s really quite unusual in that way, not just because of the history of, ‘get it done, get it done, made quickly’, but also because it is expensive to recreate the past. It’s not necessarily just costuming, you’ve got to spend time finding things. You can’t just send somebody out to buy a coffee machine and put it in a standard kitchen. And it’s one of the things that Taika said about it reinscribing his love of filmmaking, is that you’ve got this ridiculous set of a pirate ship. And it’s exciting. And it’s fun. And it’s not just walking around a back lot and seeing, oh, another kitchen. Oh, it’s somebody else’s house. It’s the interior of an office. It’s not things where you can just go out and buy everything from Staples, and Target, and Walmart and come back. You’ve got people making rope. You’ve got people discussing, like, the gorgeous pattern matching on the back of the elegant clothing that Stede is wearing, this is a crafted beautifully put together stylistic product that is really nicely fitting in with the tradition of things like Blackadder, and it feels like in a weird way that sometimes they’re reframing things we’ve already seen from these shows, and doing them in a new way.
They went with, ‘we like this thing. We’re going to do new versions’, and it feels like some of the jokes – for those who’ve never watched, Blackadder, there’s an episode was set in the Elizabethan era where they literally have a conversation with a guy who thinks they’re for sale. So Baldrick, Blackadder, and Percy our three main characters, get into a conversation down at the docks about whether they are prostitutes or not. And the fact that that joke gets used again, but differently, suggests to me that there’s this awareness of a history of historical sitcoms. But at the same time, this is developing new ways, developing new things. It’s such a beautifully produced show that the innovation that they’ve allowed themselves, as the creators have said in interviews, the ‘yes, and’ of improv, you can’t do that on a traditional sitcom set because of the blocking. Because of the layout, because of the ‘one and done’ nature of your take, and you want all the reaction shots at once. You can’t go, ‘Let’s go again and build on it, and improv’. And so, everything about this show and the way it’s produced is enabling new formats, new jokes, new perspectives to come through.
EJ: I just want to follow up on that by talking about something else which the one camera allows, which is so important to this show, and of course, that’s that they’re not all long shots. They’re not all the kind of shots you get when you have three cameras, that can rotate at best, but they are certain distance away you can. You can screw up the focal length, but you’re not going to have the beautiful, thoughtful lighting, and angles, and close up. You’re not going to have, you know, the angles you can get when Stede is attempting to climb that ladder. It’s very important that you have those angles to make it funnier. It’s very important that we see, or don’t see, certain things at certain times. You know, and later on, of course, we’ll see – we’re definitely not there, about episode six, lighting of the bathtub scene – like you have to be able to control the scene, and the set, and the lighting, and the angles, and the composition of the shot. You can do so much more cinematic composition of shots when you’re not locked into that setup. And one way that I really think it moves beyond Blackadder, of course, is just the shot composition. The thoughtful ways that they filmed. It’s beautiful, it’s beautifully shot, and they can do that because they’re giving themselves that space to do it.
Lori: This puts me in mind of – you know, so we were talking about juxtaposition. And one of the sort of great juxtapositions in the context of this show as a sitcom, is that it’s also very much cinematic, which Evan and EJ have both been talking about. And it’s interesting that this first episode, at least, is directed by somebody who’s been doing feature films for awhile now, and who is conversant with feature film production. You know, in that sense, especially in terms of the aesthetics we have a very kind of prestige TV aesthetic happening, but in a very different context from most of what we consider to be prestige TV. And for those of you who aren’t familiar with prestige TV, it is, you know, shows like going back as far as The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad. You know these kinds of things that have a sort of cinematic quality to them, for varying different definitions of cinematic. And we have had sitcoms in the past, or like that – offhand, I can’t remember many that have worked in this way.
But the other thing I want to mention briefly, since Evan was talking about these kinds of antecedents, and the familiarity with what has come before: David Jenkins has talked a little bit about his fondness for the film Harold and Maude. Which is an old love of mine and I’m showing my age here – I did not see it when it came out, I just want everybody to know that. I was not that old, but I did see it as a teenager. And the central conceit of Harold and Maude is that this one person unexpectedly becomes besotted with another person who is living completely outside the rules and following the beat of their own drummer. And a lot of the comedy of that, as well, plays on these kinds of juxtapositions. It’s an old woman that this young man has fallen in love with, and she does the weirdest things all sort of in the service of teaching him to become himself, and to express himself, and to reject the very damaging structures in which he finds himself. And in that sense, I think, as well as the sitcom antecedents, we can also talk about feature film antecedents as well.
Kavita: Well, the feature film antecedents, for sure, like you’ve got – there is the entire genre of pirate films. Like going all the way back to Errol Flynn, going all the way back to even, like, I don’t remember Valentino, if Rudolph Valentino did a pirate film, but I feel like he might have. So, you’ve got this entire kind of cinematic genre which is all about the action and the swashbuckling. And there’s very little swashbuckling in this show, at least at the beginning. There’s very little swashbuckling in the first episode. I feel like there’s only like a teeny tiny – it’s only just a tiny bit at the very end, when they’re fighting against the officers, and even that is just mostly off screen. It’s only later on that we get that, and of course later on we get the, the inevitable party scene, where everyone wearing the fancy clothes and the powdered wigs and all of that. But we are right now, early on in the episode, we’re early on in the series, we’re not there. It’s all of these expectations for pirates are not quite being fulfilled, they’re being interrogated in a lot of interesting ways. And if you want to talk about prestige TV, there’s always something like Black Sails, which is very much a prestige pirate drama, but emphasis on the drama. It is a show that is very much about characters grappling with violence, with not just kind of, not just historicity, but also literary historicity, ’cause Black Sails is conceived as a sort of prologue to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. And Our Flag Means Death doesn’t quite fall into that same generic box, but it’s kind of floating around it in a lot of ways. It’s picking up a lot of the, like the costumes, the sets, the lighting, all of those cinematic qualities that we love so much about it are part and parcel of that pirate genre, but the way that the show utilizes them, the way that the show deploys them is very different.
Evan: So, to bring it back to comedy there as well, there were a few people saying, oh, we don’t have that many pirate comedies and like hang on, erm right – we’ve got, they’re mostly made for children, though, ’cause we’ve got Muppet Treasure Island. We’ve got Hook. We’ve got plenty of humor, and funnily enough, speaking of UK sitcoms, there was an attempt to make a pirate sitcom with Craig Charles as the main character. For those of you who don’t know, that’s the guy from Red Dwarf.
And, the thing is that like the UK has a bit of a history of weird settings for sitcoms. But also that those sitcoms use the opportunity to wander off topic, as it were. So, for example, in Red Dwarf they use things for the future setting like virtual reality to do riffs on gangsters, to do riffs on Jane Austen, to do period drama comedy. Which is just a singular episode within their futuristic setting, which is also technically a period drama comedy, if you think about it – it’s just that the period isn’t one that’s happened yet. So the historicity, as it were, of setting a comedy on a pirate ship and making humor about pirates isn’t really new. There is comedy Robin Hood, there’s comedy – Maid Marian and her Merry Men, starring another member of Red Dwarf, is on YouTube and places, find it. It’s great, it’s a sitcom made for kids, but that doesn’t make it any less funny. And these are things that David Jenkins, being a little bit older than me, would have grown up with, would have been watching in an influential period as I was, and this kind of humor of putting modern people or modern ideas into the past, giving us that slight distance to enable us to not only look at what was going on in the past, right – to look at, as we’ve talked about a little bit, like race relations, class privilege, gender, is something that comes up in later episodes of Our Flag Means Death, but not in the initial ones, so much – to explore these topics that we are still considering.
And that’s one of the things that, you know, ‘as a scholar’ [ahem], I’d bang on about, is the fact that we don’t put hard and fast lines in. We don’t say, right, the modern period started in 1450, the early modern period ended: BAM, right. That would be nonsense, like we all live in modernity. The modern world developed slowly as technology developed, as people’s thought processes developed, as the systems that we live within, particularly capitalism, developed. The pirates are operating in a very early version of capitalism that we would recognize today: international shipping, globalization of product cultures. People wanting their import status products and complaining about shipping routes. A fight in the Caribbean, or an argument about territory in Africa, could influence the products that you would be able to buy in Edinburgh. And people think about this period as so far in the past, and one of the things I like about these sitcoms is that, yes, it’s funny to think about people-positive management styles in the 1700s and nobody had yet created that sentence, right? It hadn’t been written down. But the idea that we weren’t thinking the same sorts of thoughts, that human beings have fundamentally altered over the course of 300 years, that we can’t just think about ourselves in these spaces. And how that enables us to take a bit of distance to look at these things and laugh at them, and maybe not feel threatened, you know, by putting them in this alternate space.
EJ: We frequently use the fantastical, whether that’s horror or history or exotic locations or science fiction or fantasy or anything, to explore whatever it is we’re trying to do, and in this case you’ve got the historical aspect of it. And then, of course, the fantastic, in some ways, fantasticalness of being on this pirate ship, being in this interesting space which, in many ways, that part reminds me of Red Dwarf. In the fact that they’re just all on this ship, this is where they are, though they basically get off the ship a little bit more than they managed to do in Red Dwarf. And then Blackadder for the history. But you know, they’re both ways that, by taking yourself out of that space and putting it in a different space, you can see things differently. You know, things look differently in the past, and that allows us to reflect on how things look different in the setting – that allows us to reflect back on things.
There’s good ways and bad ways to do that. Certainly it is frustrating when, when reading historical fiction of any flavor, where you have the one person from the 20th century that is your main character, who has somehow been dropped in there and is the one person that knows about germ theory, whatever the heck else it is, and is the one person who has an enlightened viewpoint about everything. And then there’s just all these idiots in the past. That can be more frustrating than engaging, frequently. But there are ways to do it where you can acknowledge problematic aspects of the past and acknowledge problematic aspects of the present. At the same time.
Kavita: That is one of my enormous pet peeves, as a long time reader of historical fiction, that one of the things that will always sort of throw me out of a book is if there is one character – and usually only one character, the main character, the special, special protagonist – who magically knows everything, and is better than all of the other characters. And we don’t get that in Our Flag Means Death, at least in part, I think, because of the ensemble comedy aspect of it. The fact that you have all of these characters bringing all of these different perspectives. And they’re all a mix of the historical and the modern. They’re all kind of bringing all of those things together at once. And having the multi vocality I think is really helpful, in that respect.
EJ: Not just multivocality, but the multivalence of perspectives, including people of color. Because then you don’t have to have the one white person, who somehow figured out in the past that slavery and racism were bad. No! There are people of color pointing out that slavery and racism are bad. Who can talk about their experiences of this stuff and acknowledge that it are bad! So you don’t have to have like a teachable moment. Or again, that that like one white savior character who’s the first person to ever consider treating people of color like people. It’s like, no, you just have people. They’re there. Everyone was in the past. Everyone was doing this stuff. It wasn’t one of those, like, everyone in the past thought that way. ’cause I guarantee you there were people in the past that didn’t think that way: usually the people being screwed over by how it worked. And by having that space for those people, you know, and by having characters like a Oluwande, and Roach, and Frenchie and letting them speak, letting them occupy space, letting them have their own perspectives and be there.
You know it’s a way of avoiding some of that tendency towards white savior narratives in historical things. Of the many, many, many reasons it’s awesome to have characters of color in a diverse cast, that’s really one of the things that brings to historical stuff, because otherwise you either get the colorblind stuff or you get the there’s no color whatsoever. And to quote Burton Guster from the sitcom Psych: ‘ Are you trying to tell me black people hadn’t been invented yet?’
Lori: We did have one fic rec for this week and that comes to us courtesy of EJ, who has been very excited about this fic, as I have learned first-hand, and it is in fact a very good fic. Assuming that I know the one you’re talking about.
EJ: There’s so much fantastic stuff being written, but as a general rule, I wouldn’t want to recommend anything that isn’t finished, as I – as a fanfic author – know how dangerous that is, etc. But of the many incredible fics I have read. I did want to recommend a fic called ‘Public Relations’ which is located on AO3, the author – don’t know how one would pronounce their pseudonym, but it is spelled AMCW177. It’s called ‘Public Relations’. So, it is an Ed and Stede, it is a multi-chapter. The whole thing is up: the author put all of it up at once, which is pretty incredible. It’s 31,000 words. It’s a fantastic – it’s a reunion fic. It’s outsider POV. It’s got some really interesting character dynamics I haven’t seen in a lot of other fic. It’s got wonderful pirating. It’s got very clever writing. It’s emotionally satisfying, especially in the way that they do [spoiler] end up back together. But there’s other things going on in it, and it’s just, it’s a lovely fic.
Lori: So, that brings us to the end of this episode of The Shipping Cast. I want to thank everybody for listening and we welcome you to join us again when we talk about Episode 2. And I do want to mention that if you would like to send us a question, you can do that. Our contact information is on our website, which is The Shipping Cast dot show [it is NOT: it’s theshippingcast dot com!]. So, thanks again for joining us, and we will talk to you next time.