Pirate Master is Mark Burnett's latest reality show modelled after another reality show. This time the model is Survivor and unlike much of Burnett's other imitation on this season, On The Lot, this one is actually sort of good. Admittedly the show is an effort to tie into this Disney movie franchise Pirates of the Mediterranean or whatever it's called, but the fact remains, this wasn't at all bad, just good, satisfying mindless entertainment that even my mother (who loathes Survivor except for the reunion show) likes.
This show had me from the opening, where a longboat rows silently up through the fog to a tall ship and the occupants board her. There are sixteen of them and these scurvy scallywags are the typical reality show mix; eight men and eight women from various occupations and backgrounds. On boarding the ship they are introduced to the show's host and their guide to events Australian actor Cameron Daddo, who some of you might remember from the Melrose Place spin-off Models Inc. not to mention guest appearances on a number of other shows in the US. Daddo's first task for them is to have them man a pair of lines to heave up a mysterious item from the sea. When they bring it aboard they discover the fabled Chest of Zanzibar. The Chest, the "legend" says, contains clues to the treasure of Captain Henry Steel and his pirate crew. Steel had split his booty amongst himself and the members of his crew and sealed maps to the treasure in the chest. Each compartment of the chest contains two maps for that particular treasure.
Come the dawn – after the contestants have spent at least part of the night getting to know each other and "something" in pewter mugs (with real pirates it would undoubtedly be Jamaican rum but with these guys who knows) the search begins in earnest. First of course they have to sail the ship – a rather nice three masted barque – to the Caribbean island of Dominica. They actually have to sail the ship themselves – there's no evidence of a professional crew aboard – which means that at least some people have to go aloft and man the lines to unfurl the sails, a prospect that more than a few of their colleagues find too daring – some say crazy – for them to do. And there was one case of sea sickness from a woman named Joy (receptionist) much to the scorn of some of her crewmates, notably John (scientist by day, Chippendale Dancer by night). This lack of sympathy for anyone else would, as we`d soon see, be a recurrent theme for John.
Arriving at the correct location off the coast of Dominica, the mouth of the Indian River – which leads to the inevitable question of who was steering the ship given that none of them knew where they were going let alone how to actually steer a course or navigate – Dado emerges again to open the first compartment of the chest. The compartment contains two maps and two compasses. He then gets each pirate to select a musket ball which is painted either red or black. The two new teams have to navigate up the Indian River, find the correct branch (marked by a skull with a cutlass through it) then go across country to find three buried keys. The keys unlock a skeleton`s cage to find the map that will lead them to the actual treasure. They have to continue down the river to a sabotage point where one team can slow down another – in this case by putting a net across the river – while they go on to the final location of the treasure, suspended between two crocodile heads. Of the two crews the Black Crew generally excelled. For one thing they remembered that their longboat had a rudder. I'm serious about that by the way; the Red Crew paddled off trying to steer by varying the rate at which they paddled on each side. And yet the Black Crew never had a convincing lead thanks in part to their lack of real leadership. At one point one of the crew got stuck in a mud bog and lost his shoe. He spent a lot of time trying to extricate the shoe from the mud while his crewmates were shouting at him to just leave it as opposed to maybe helping him get it. Then after he got out of the mud they had trouble with the keys to the cage until John managed to work it. And when they finally reached the place where the treasure was they went off searching on their own for the crocodile head until Joe Don (Forest Service firefighter from Fairbanks Alaska) got them organized to search more methodically. But it was John who used his "knowledge of crocodiles and the trees they live under" to actually locate the treasure just as the Red Crew arrived at the final location.
Once the two crews returned to the ship the chest was opened. Inside was $40,000 in gold coins. The members of the Black Crew were told by Daddo to select one of their number as Captain. The unanimously picked Joe Don – well almost unanimously. John, who had been asserting in confessionals and even members of his crew that he had been the only person doing anything during the quest for the first treasure wanted to be Captain and even when the tide was obviously against them refused to vote with the "sheep". Then came the surprise – Captain Joe Don would receive half of the booty just because he was the Captain. He was then told to select two officers – he picked Ben (musician) and Cheryl (deputy district attorney). They split half of the remaining booty - $5,000 each. The five remaining crew members split the remaining coins ($2,000 each) amid considerable resentment that Joe Don, Ben and Cheryl didn't share and share alike. The crews were then disbanded.
There were a couple of other perks for the captain and officers. They got to live in the luxurious Captain's Cabin, although with varying degrees of luxury. The Captain had a large bed for himself, the officers' two bunks in the bulkhead but at that they were in more luxurious quarters than the crew who were in a common room in bunk beds. The other thing was the ability to choose who would go to "Pirates Court," the show's elimination process. The Captain sends summons to the court to the crew but three of the summonses are marked with the "Black Spot" marking them to be cut adrift. Joe Don picks John, Louie (Fishing Dock operator, who vaguely looks like Rupert Bonham from Survivor: Pearl Island) for speaking out against the Captain, and Joy for no reason except that she wouldn't be likely to get any votes. The voting process gave each crew member (not the officers or the people served with the "Black Spot") four cards, three with the names of the marked crew members and one with the word "Mutiny." If the crew voted for "Mutiny" it would be Joe Don cast adrift. John then showed piratical conniving by stealing the two compasses that the crew had received during the hunt for the first treasure and demanding that the crew voted for "Mutiny" because he'd done all the work during the challenge not the Captain, and how are you supposed to find the rest of the treasure if you ain't got a compass, arrrr?! He actually challenged Joe Don on this but the Captain (who served two years in the real US Navy in search and rescue said that it's easy to navigate without a compass by reading the natural signs – the sun, the stars and the moon. For his arrogance, attempt to make himself the indispensible man, and trying to foment a mutiny while being even less well liked than the Captain, John was cast adrift.
Pirate Master is an interesting amalgam. It has the challenge aspect of Survivor mixed with elements of Big Brother in the form of the Captain's Quarters (HOH room) and the "Black Spot" (house keys). And there's a certain historical accuracy to it, although it isn't carried too far. The "Black Spot" is well known – check out Treasure Island for example – but so is the distribution of the booty and not just amongst pirates. In Nelson's period and before when a warship was captured and taken into a British port the Admiralty would pay out "prize money" to the ship that captured the prize. There would be a payment to the Admiral commanding the squadron that the ship belonged to (one eighth) but the bulk of the prize money was split between the Captain and crew with a quarter going to the Captain, an eighth to the officers, and a quarter divided amongst the crew. Obviously pirates didn't have the overhead (admirals) or some of the other recipients of splits, but the fact remains that most of the booty went to the captain and officers even amongst pirates. Two areas where they don't seem to be going for accuracy are in punishments and accommodations. There wouldn't have been bunks for the crew in a real pirate ship – they'd be slinging hammocks in their mess room (in the British tradition the mess room is where crew spent all their off-duty hours including the time when they were asleep – hammocks were the beds for ordinary seamen in the Royal Canadian Navy until a few years after World War II) or more likely over the ship's guns, but of course this barque carries no guns. And don't even mention the food – biscuits with weevils, and salt beef or pork, supplemented with lemon juice (for Royal Navy crews) or sauerkraut (for German ships) to combat scurvy, though neither was common with pirate crews. As for punishment, even in the Royal Navy in Nelson's time stealing from members of your own crew as John did when he took the two compasses, would have been a death penalty offense but not before the Captain ordered that the cat (of nine tails) be let out of the bag and the thief be given ten or twenty lashes across his back. And for this offense in particular the crew would not only expect this but demand it. Pirates were even harsher as were some of the earlier punishments (my all time favourite was a punishment from the English navy in the 16th century which involved tying the transgressor to the bowsprit of the ship with a can – a small cask – of beer, some ship's biscuits, and a knife; he'd die either of starvation, dehydration, stabbing himself, or drowning after he cut the ropes holding him to the ship). Simply put there is no way that John would have been allowed to leave the ship – dead or alive – with the two compasses.
As you can tell I have a lot of interest in ships and sailors of this period (I did a couple of senior level papers in history on the topic when I was in University). The show is a bit of a hoot and I don't get the idea expressed by some viewers in the comments section of the Entertainment Weekly recap piece that the show seemed scripted at times. While not on the level of Survivor or The Amazing Race, and it doesn't have the immediate quality of a Big Brother season – where the eliminations at least are done live and real life events can occasionally intrude into the show's internal reality (the biggest example of which was 9/11 tragedy which directly affected one of the participants who lost a relative in the World Trade Center) – this is a fun summer reality show. True there's nothing original here, but I really wonder how original you can get with a reality competition show (at least tastefully – I'm not talking about something like the Dutch show that's giving away a dying woman's kidney for transplant into one of three contestants. Pirate Master isn't particularly deep; it's summer fluff that you can watch either to decry how bad it is or just to enjoy. And really, what more do you want in a summer show than that.