From Transformers to Television: Michael Bay’s Expanding Empire

Of all the Hollywood mega-star producers, directors, and writers, Michael Bay’s talent gets debated in the media perhaps the most frequently. Is he the filmmaker we need or the one we deserve? Is he an auteur or something entirely new? Does he need defending? While his films receive a regular barrage of critical drubbings (sometimes unwarranted – I will praise Pain & Gain to anyone willing to listen), the eleven films he’s directed have grossed over $5.7 billion and counting worldwide. Like him or hate him, the man sells tickets. Having conquered the world of film, what’s the next frontier for Michael Bay? Executive producing television, of course.

This year, two of Bay’s shows made it onto the air: the 18th century pirate drama Black Sails on Starz, which the network renewed for a second season to air in 2015 five months before the first even aired beginning last January, and The Last Ship, a post-apocalyptic action series also renewed and currently making ratings waves on TNT. (A&E ultimately passed on a third pilot, The Occult, centered on a detective working with a paranormal investigator.) The shows on air make an interesting pair, with seemingly little in common on the surface beyond their nautical settings. However, both do bear the imprint of Bay’s involvement, and that’s for the better.

Because, while Bay’s films are often dismissed as commercial teenage boy schlock (and that’s being kind), his television programs are… actually decent. Not always brilliant but usually entertaining, with clarity of vision, able casts, and a production quality that serves to augment the shows’ quality rather than hide their flaws.

 

At first glance, The Last Ship seems to be quintessential Bay. The show is based loosely on William Brinkley’s 1988 novel of the same name, and tells the story of the crew of the Nathan James, a US Naval destroyer, who may be the last hope to develop a cure to a global pandemic that’s wiped out 80% of the world’s population. Some of Bay’s cinematic trademarks leap immediately into view: reverent (if not always accurate) attention to military details, well-choreographed firefights, epic explosions. This is undemanding television for the masses, yes, but even cable networks still need to keep the lights on.

The cast of military personnel, capably led by Eric Dane (of Grey’s Anatomy McSteamy fame) and Adam Baldwin (Firefly, Chuck), are all upstanding individuals, devoted to country, mission, and family in that order. They might disagree on the means, but they’re all working toward the same end. (Except for the one spy for Russia – which, of course there’s a spy for Russia.) And the mission is the story – there’s minimal interest in character development that doesn’t link directly back to the plot, and exposition speaks directly to the choices the characters will be forced to make. It’s slick, functional, and unsurprising, but proficiently so.

Despite its predictability and the lack of imagination in its writing, The Last Ship is solid summer television. Sometimes it’s sufficient to have a well-paced script that treats its characters with respect, even if they’re not particularly deep. Especially impressive is the way that female characters exist in the show’s world. The brilliant scientist in charge of finding the cure (Rhona Mitra, Boston Legal) clashes with Dane’s commander over her role and tactics, but with mutual respect and without a hint of tiresome romantic tension. Women are visible in the crew in positions of authority, competent, and not defined by gender. It’s probably one of more flattering depictions of women in the American military on television to date – something pleasantly surprising from a show associated with Bay, due to the, um, vacuous way women are frequently depicted in his films.

Black Sails

Black Sails is something more ambitious than The Last Ship, and as a result is simultaneously messier, more fascinating, and more frustrating. Set in the Bahamas in 1715, the show is ostensibly a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, although scarcity of extant sources and dramatic demands mean that the incorporation of historical figures and events is more of a wink toward reality than actual fact. The show’s fantastic CGI, coupled with its shooting location in South Africa, means that it looks quite unlike anything else on television these days. Bay’s visual sensibilities transfer to pirate ships with aplomb, resulting in gorgeous battles that both capture the uniqueness of the show’s environment and highlight its cramped geography. Like The Last Ship, its cast is led by lesser known but talented actors, including Toby Stephens (Die Another Day; also Dame Maggie Smith’s son) as the steely Captain Flint and frequent Transformers voice artist Mark Ryan as his quartermaster Gates.

The first season had some glaring flaws – some subplots moved at a glacial speed, the focus on colonial politics proved yawn-worthy, and not all of the sprawling cast of characters developed equally well (Luke Arnold’s John Silver in particular failed to gel, and Clara Paget’s Anne Bonny is woefully underused). At times, it defies the predictable arc of a television series to bad effect, with plot climaxes in strange places and anti-climatic resolutions.

Also, like many other historical dramas, the show struggles in its treatment of women and minorities, with troubling interludes of sexual violence and missed opportunities to incorporate more of the unique multiethnic landscape of the colonial Bahamas. Thankfully, the treatment of both improves towards the end of the season, with [SPOILERS] prostitute Max manipulating herself into power in the brothel and Eleanor Guthrie, daughter of the former governor, seizing control of the island’s trade after her father’s departure. Problems aside, Black Sails remains something totally unique in the television landscape, and if this is the direction that Bay is looking to take his burgeoning television empire, it’s a promising one.

Why do Bay’s television ventures result in a better product, one generally more critically well-received than his films? In this case, his multi-hyphenate status and packed schedule work to his advantage. On both shows, as executive producer, Bay paired with talented showrunners with a track record of a strong point of view: Jonathan Steinberg of Black Sails was co-creator of the cult favorite Jericho (which prompted a passionate campaign for renewal wherein fans sent ABC mountains of peanuts, a reference to the show’s mythology), and Hank Steinberg of The Last Ship created and ran CBS’ Without a Trace before it got painfully bad.

Television as a medium suits Bay’s style of storytelling by giving it space to breathe. The same low film angles and expansive fight sequences filled with visual effects that make his films sometimes feel relentless and claustrophobic are much more palatable when spread over an eight-to-thirteen hour season of television. In a series format, the action seems to stem from the story, unlike his films, where a thin veneer of plot is often hastily splashed onto a series of nifty CGI centerpieces.

Will Michael Bay be remembered as the greatest film and television artist of our time? Undoubtedly not. But does he perhaps understand what people actually watch (for better or worse) more clearly than most working in the industry? Absolutely. He’s a Hollywood hit-maker in the film world for sure, but his work branching out into television is a bit more experimental, a bit more diverse, and a bit more exciting. I’m curious to see what comes next.