'Our Flag Means Death' shivers our timbers : Pop Culture Happy Hour The hilarious HBO Max comedy series Our Flag Means Death follows the misadventures of Stede Bonnet, a posh aristocrat who decides to give up his pampered life and become a swashbuckling pirate on the high seas. It soon becomes clear that he lacks the ruthlessness necessary to be any good at the job, but when he meets the fearsome pirate Blackbeard (played by Taika Waititi) the two men find they have much to teach one another about pirating and self-acceptance.

'Our Flag Means Death' shivers our timbers

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The hilarious comedy series "Our Flag Means Death" follows the misadventures of Stede Bonnet, a posh aristocrat who decides to give up his pampered life and become a swashbuckling pirate on the high seas. It soon becomes clear that he lacks the ruthlessness necessary to be any good at the job. But when he meets the fearsome pirate Blackbeard, the two men finally have much to teach one another about pirating and about accepting who they are. I'm Glen Weldon. And today we're talking about "Our Flag Means Death" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

Joining us today is Tasha Robinson. She's the film and streaming editor at Polygon and the co-host of "The Next Picture Show" podcast. Hi, Tasha.

TASHA ROBINSON: Hello, Glen. It's been so long.

WELDON: I know. Welcome back. Our Flag Means Death stars Rhys Darby, whom you might remember from "Flight Of The Conchords" and the movie "What We Do In The Shadows," two properties that really share this show's dry comedic sensibility. Darby plays Stede Bonnet, a foppish pirate captain desperate to earn the respect of his crew. And Taika Waititi plays Blackbeard, the bloodthirsty buccaneer who sets out to teach Bonnet the ways of the sea. And while Blackbeard's first mate, Izzy, played by Con O'Neill, doesn't like the relationship that his boss is developing with Bonnet, Bonnet's large and fractious and sort of queer crew come to embrace the gentleman pirate's feckless, bumbling but good-hearted leadership.

The showrunner is David Jenkins, who also created "People Of Earth" - very funny show. The entire first season of "Our Flag Means Death" is streaming on HBO Max. And at the time we're recording, at least, a second season has yet to be announced. Tasha, what are you making of "Our Flag Means Death"?

ROBINSON: (Laughter) Well, not nearly as much as the fervent fandom is making out of it - the fervent fandom has been making fan art and fan stories and theories, the ideas and a community around it. Like, this show has been embraced to a degree that I can't remember a show being embraced since maybe "She-Ra Princesses of Power" on Netflix, which also attracted a very large and active, young, queer audience. I love the show. I love what it's doing. The more I think about it and how well it's constructed, how thoughtfully it's constructed, the more I love it. But I have to admit, a lot of my fandom at this point is just coming out of watching how happy younger people are to see a version of themselves on screen that they've never seen before.

WELDON: Yeah. That's certainly true. I mean, I'm on record. I love the show. I want to marry the show. I want to live inside the show.

ROBINSON: (Laughter).

WELDON: Ten out of 10 - no notes - but I'm struggling to articulate why I love it in the way that I do. And I think you might have hit on something there, Tasha, because I find that as I watch it, grinning from ear to ear, the emotion I am feeling is gratitude. I am just so happy for this show. And I'm also happy - not for nothing - that somebody in this country has figured out what to do with Rhys Darby...

ROBINSON: (Laughter).

WELDON: ...Who is so funny, but who is also at the very same time a very specific flavor, right? I mean, nobody could do what he does better than he does it. But you have to figure out how to use it. I mean, if you think of the character, Murray, his character in "Flight Of The Conchords," you always wanted more from that guy. But you worried if he did get more screen time, he could come off as one-note. So what they do here is they just load this crew up with a bunch of different people that he can bounce off in different ways.

And I've wanted this guy to stand, like, in the spotlight for years now. I think he deserves it. I'm just happy that he's doing it here. There is something about him. Even when he's playing a jerk or a boob or a snob, there is a central sweetness to him that is just so incredibly endearing. And it's like his sweetness is bending space-time around him in a way that I think feels very earned, very, not really manipulative. I enjoy watching his crew come around to him because of course they would, because how could you not?

ROBINSON: Well, we've also been promised for quite a long time - he had a very small part in Taika Waititi's movie, "What We Do In The Shadows"...


ROBINSON: ...As the leader of a werewolf band. And one of the things people remember most about that movie is his line - when one of his little pack swears, he says, we're werewolves, not swearwolves (ph). And again, that speaks to a sort of fuddy-duddy ninniness that nonetheless is both very funny and very endearing. We've been promised a spinoff about those werewolves and about him for many, many years, and it hasn't...


ROBINSON: ...Surfaced. But in a movie full of comedians doing full-on amazing comedic things, that one very small, flat line just keeps coming back to people's minds.

WELDON: Yeah. And let's talk about the Taika Waititi of it all. He is always a welcome presence. He is giving Blackbeard this very kind of searching, yearning quality that pays off if you keep watching the show.

ROBINSON: Yeah. He directed the pilot. His involvement here is fairly significant. But at the same time, I worry that too many people are giving him credit for the show...

WELDON: Right.

ROBINSON: ...Which is very much David Jenkins' vision.


ROBINSON: He is a standout performance. He's a standout presence. One of the things that people are definitely seizing on is his emotional performance towards the end of the show, which is very nuanced and very compelling. I mean, we have gotten to see him a lot on screen, as well as behind the camera, on films ranging from "Thor: Ragnarok" to his little indie, "Hunt For The Wilderpeople," which remains one of my most recommended films of all time. And I feel like he gets to do some things here that we don't normally see him do, in terms of both ferocity and tenderness, in terms of need and hunger and sadness and anger and wistfulness and melancholy. There's a lot going on in the relatively short 10 episodes of the show.

WELDON: Yeah, there certainly is. And I think, as you mentioned, the queerness is intrinsic to it. It is baked into the sensibility of the show. It is not played for laughs, really. I mean, it's actually played for depth, you know, for roundedness, for giving these characters a lived life. I - you know, personally, I'm always on the lookout for cynical queer bait, but this doesn't ping that meter at all. There are clearly queer voices in that writers room. Vico Ortiz, who plays Jim, is nonbinary like the character they play. And the queerness is just - it's simply asserted without putting a lampshade on it.

ROBINSON: Yeah. There's no sense of lingering gay panic that - which used to be such an element in comedy. If you look back to the films of the '80s, it was just assumed. Here, there's never any sense - even though you have two characters who may not have realized they were queer or maybe bi, and maybe this is just the first time they've thought about being with a man in this particular way, there's no sense of worry or shame about what society might think. But this is also a show that quietly in the background normalizes other kinds of queer spectrum relationships. You have a quiet hookup between two of the pirates, Black Pete and Lucius, which starts as a pretty random it's-not-gay-if-it's-underway Navy kind of thing, just the two lonely people. And you get to see it develop into something tender and personal as they come to care about each other and start using pet names for each other. You have the relationship between a Black man and a nonbinary person just not really commented on as something remarkable. It's just two people finding each other.

And with Stede and Blackbeard, you have an incredibly rich and complicated fantasy relationship. There is an incredibly complicated set of fantasies going on here, which, looked at from Stede's perspective, is the fantasy of somebody much cooler and more capable coming into your life, seeing past all of your faults, seeing past how society sees you and deciding that you are special, that you're an extraordinary person. And then on top of all that, revealing that under all of the cool, they're actually a big, soft nerd who loves you - that's a tremendous fantasy on its own. And then from Blackbeard's point of view, you have the fantasy of kindness. You have somebody coming into your world who's unlike anybody you've ever met and sees you differently from everyone you've ever been with. I think both of those things are just such tremendous fantasy elements.

People are talking a lot about the queerbaiting element of entertainment and how people have recognized the hunger for queer stories and teased at them without actually acknowledging them, without actually going anywhere near actual romance. And a lot of the fandom for this show has been people who watched with a developing sense of hope as the slow burn romance, the central romance, played out, hoping that they would get somewhere. And I think in addition to, wait, they're actually going to kiss, they actually are in love, they were getting all of these, like, much more subtle fantasy elements along the way that they didn't necessarily realize because they were just hoping to not have the show bail on them and say, thanks for watching. We're not going to go there. Bye.

WELDON: Yeah, I think you nailed it there. The fact that this show is going there, and if you were to describe the show to somebody and say, yeah, it's this bumbling pirate and then he hooks up with Blackbeard, that kind of conveys a very simplistic, broad comedy that this show steers against at every turn. It is trying to make it smaller, more personal, more human. It's helped a great deal by the casting director because, I mean, if I was the casting director, I would hire the same people - Leslie Jones, Kristen Schaal, Nick Kroll, Will Arnett and Claudia O'Doherty, who doesn't get enough to do until finally she does. There is an approach, a sensibility and, yes, a queerness that this show exudes that doesn't feel forced. It doesn't feel like it's coming from outside. It feels like it's inside the house.

ROBINSON: At the same time, you say it steers against that comedy at all times, but that first episode is so unrepresentative of what the show becomes...

WELDON: I think that's true. You're right. Yeah.

ROBINSON: ...The kindness and tenderness and thoughtfulness and, to some degree, the edginess. This is also a show that makes room for making fun of racism and making fun of the history of white colonizers. It's a show that makes time for making fun of the rich and the preoccupations and silliness of the elite. And none of it is really reflected in the first episode, which is very silly.


ROBINSON: I was so worried when I started watching this series that people would be turned off by that first episode and not go any further and that the show wouldn't find its fandom. By the time I got to the end of it, I was positive if people watched this show, it would become a phenomenon.

WELDON: I think the show does find itself, and I think it is about vibing on the same frequency as Stede Bonnet as opposed to coming from outside. And I think, you know - I mean, we talked about the fan base. There is a very devoted fan base that are screaming for a Season 2. Are you screaming for a Season 2, Tasha, or do you think what we got is self-contained and we should just be grateful for that?

ROBINSON: We left that final episode on a massive cliffhanger. I think everybody wants to see it pay off more than they want to linger in that particular moment. You know, it's the kill-your-gays phenomenon in media where, if you have a queer relationship, one of them has to die is such a thing. There's so much queer media that's about tragedy, that's about the pain of coming out, that's about familial rejection, that's about loss. I think one of the things that people have seized on here is a queer relationship that's kind and tender and that does actually pay off, but it also ends on a moment of pain. I think everybody wants to see that moment of pain pay off and go somewhere better. There's always the question of whether Season 2 is going to nail the same landing, but I think it should be given the chance. This is a big show.

WELDON: This is a big show that knows it's an ensemble. And so you have somebody like Nat Faxon who - you know, he headlined his own sitcom for a while there. And he is just part of the mix here. Everybody is part of the mix in a really sometimes surprising but always pleasant, always very funny way.

ROBINSON: Ewen Bremner from "Trainspotting" running around buck ass naked is just a random comedy element. But I just - I feel like Samson Kayo in particular, as Oluwande needs to be called out because, again, this is a big, fractious cast of comedians doing very silly things. And in the middle of it, the heart of this show is a sensitive, kind soul who provides the show with just a competent hook where almost everybody else is kind of comedically incompetent. And here in the middle of it, you just have a guy who's pulling for his friends and family, that there's just so much here in the casting in terms of faces and voices that we don't normally see in, effectively, a mainstream comedy.

WELDON: And, you know, when we talked about this before we started taping, Tasha, I said to you, I was worried that I don't have enough ways of saying I love it, but in talking to you, I now know why I love the show and I love it even more. So thank you for that.

ROBINSON: (Laughter).

WELDON: We want to know what you think about "Our Flag Means Death." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Tasha Robinson, thank you for being here with me.

ROBINSON: Well, thank you so much for letting me talk about the thing that has been dominating my mind for the past month.

WELDON: (Laughter) And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Candice Lim and edited by Jessica Reedy. And Hello Come In provides the music you may or may not be bopping your head to right now. I'm Glen Weldon, and we will see you all tomorrow when we will be talking about the new Nicolas Cage movie, "The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent."

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