I think I love Pirate Master.
It’s a show concept that, if executed properly, was destined to be enjoyed by those of us with a passion for all things swashbuckling. Fortunately for those of us who’ve actually considered buying the Grog Flavored Pirate Mints from Archie McPhee, Mark Burnett nailed the concept.
The first episode of the series began with sixteen pirately-garbed contestants boarding the ship that will be their home for the season. Aussie host Cameron Daddo filled them in on the backstory of legendary (okay, nonexistent) pirate Henry Steel and the treasure chest he left behind.
The chest has 15 compartments, each of which contains two copies of a map that gives the location of a portion of the $1 million dollar prize. (Fourteen of the compartments are for treasure amounts in the $40,000 range, and one is for the finale’s treasure, which will be worth about $500,000.)
This first week, the pirates were divided randomly into two teams and given one of the two maps and a compass. They then set out in a long boat in a race to the first treasure.
Mercifully, the editors only focused on a few of the main players in this week’s episode, rather than introduce a bunch of people weren’t integral to the storyline. The key players on the red team were cutie Joy and car parts salesman Jay. For the black team, the key players were ex-Navy guy Joe Don, Fabio-ish nerd John, Survivor Rupert lookalike Louis, and young musician Ben.
The black team got an early lead when the red team neglected to use their rudder to steer their boat. By the time they got back on track, the red team had already sailed out of open water and into one of the rivers on the Caribbean island of Dominica.
The teams rowed past impressive-looking pirate skeletons with swords through their heads or strung up in cages, which the map used as route markers. If nothing else, the show’s prop department has managed to capture the look of a Hollywood pirate epic.
After the black team tied up their boat at the first location on the map, they slogged their way through a muddy swamp on their way to retrieve their next clue. Ben’s shoe came off in the mud, and he spent so much time trying to rescue it from the muck that the red team was able to catch up.
Joe Don wasted a bunch of time trying to unsuccessfully open a three-key lock, before scientist/exotic dancer (no, I’m not kidding) John saved the day and released the next map. He opened the lock and the team ran back to their boat.
As they rowed down river, the black team saw a sabotage opportunity — namely a strategically placed rope net that could be raised to impede the progress of the slower team. Ben redeemed himself by diving into the water and raising the net — cleaning off his muddy shoe in the process.
Finally, the black team reached the resting place of the treasure chest. Unfortunately, it was resting somewhere on the bottom of a rather deep section of the river. And as they searched, the red team navigated around the rope net.
John used the power of scientific reasoning to deduce that the section of the river they were in was known as the Crocodile’s Lair, and since crocodiles live under the roots of mangrove trees, he should check under the tree roots for the chest. His deduction was correct, and he found the chest. Score another one for science!
The black team returned victorious to the pirate ship, where they discovered that the chest contained some live crabs and $40,000 worth of gold pieces. Host Cameron conferred with the black team, as the red team waited in the crew quarters below deck.
Cameron instructed the team to choose a captain from amongst their ranks. Naturally, based on his exceptional performance in the treasure hunt, the team chose… Joe Don? John, a self-professed geek, was clearly miffed that his scientific and exotic dancing skills were not being appreciated, and he refused to vote for Joe Don.
Majority ruled, and Joe Don was told that he’d be receiving half of the gold that the team had discovered: $20,000 (though he could redistribute it if he wanted). Then he was instructed to choose two officers, and he picked Deputy DA Cheryl and Mud Shoe Ben. For their position, they were each awarded $5,000.
That left $2,000 for each of the remaining members of the black team, who were all summarily demoted to regular crew members. That meant that, along with the members of the red team, they would serve at the pleasure of Captain Joe Don and his officers.
As another perk, the captain and officers moved into the posh Captain’s Quarters next to the crew quarters. When the lowly crew members asked if they could come in and look around, Captain Joe Don refused and locked the door.
Resentment built the next day, as the crew labored to clean the boat and the captain and his officers lounged around in their coats and tri-cornered hats. The normally jovial Louie muttered about mutiny.
Cameron met up with the captain and his officers to inform them about that evening’s Pirates Court. The captain would nominate three people for elimination from the show, and the rest of the crew would vote on which one of them to cut adrift.
Unless, of course, all ten of the voting crew members staged a mutiny and voted for Captain J.D. If the mutiny was unanimous, and his officers agreed to it, the captain would be ousted.
There was no question that the exotic-but-unruly John would be on the chopping block. Louie, whose mutinous mutterings were overheard by the officers, was also nominated. Finally, J.D. chose the well-liked Joy — who was in no danger of being voted out — as insurance that one of either Louis or John would leave that night.
At Pirates Court, each of the three nominees got to make their case for staying to their crew mates. Louie and Joy both got a favorable response for their good-natured remarks.
But John had a different approach. Before court, he’d stolen the two compasses that the contestants will need in order to locate future treasure chests. If they voted for him, they’d be forced to wander around, directionless.
Captain J.D. was not threatened, and the following exchange ensued:
J.D.: "At night, the Big Dipper points to the North Star… In the day, put a stick in the mud. It casts a shadow. Mark the end of that shadow, wait thirty minutes, it’ll cast another shadow. Draw a line between the two, and you have East and West. Then you know where North and South is. I don’t need your compasses — and I don’t need you."
John (looking up at the cloudy night sky): "J.D., which way is North?"
J.D.: "I have no idea. Perhaps we’re further south than we can see at this moment in time. In the daytime, it’s simple. It’s a piece of cake."
Sure, it’s simple, J.D. — if you don’t mind waiting around for 30 minutes watching a stick in the mud during a treasure hunt.
But the crew wasn’t swayed by the theft, and they voted unanimously to get rid of John. He was placed on a small raft with a lantern, and J.D. did the honors of cutting the rope with a cutlass, and setting John adrift at sea.
Next week, the captain’s powers go to J.D.’s head, and he chows down while refusing the crew food and making them swab the deck.
On the whole, I thought the whole episode was very interesting. By making teams a temporary and ever-changing element of the game, it fosters a sense of unity among the whole crew, rather than pitting one group against another.
Instead, the clash is a class war: the captain, who has all the money and all the power, versus the crew that he can choose to bully or treat as equals. Only the plebes are given the chance to turn the tables at Pirates Court, giving them a measure of power lacking from prior Burnett have-versus-have-nots experiments on Survivor and The Apprentice.
Since there are a number of ways that a captain can choose to wield power, and a number of ways that the crew can respond, it should make for an interesting first season.