20 February 2011

TV Series: Spartacus: Blood and Sand

Spartacus: Blood and Sand http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1442449/

8 episodes into the first season of the new Starz series "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" and I have to revise my first assessment of the show. Earlier I had said it "isn't great but is entertaining on some level." That was based on the first couple of episodes - that it looked like it had promise but also seemed destined to not quite be as good as HBO's "Rome" series. Well, I should have waited a few more episodes. It is already better than I initially thought and might just stay better.

The first few episodes were setting the stage and establishing the characters. True they had bloody action and plenty of skin, but as the show progressed I realize now that the writers are doing a good job of doing everything for a reason. They are telling a big story and it was necessary to lay a good foundation for the series to stand on, and sometimes that process may seem slow. If the writers keep the future episodes as tight and on track as these first eight episodes this show might just be great. Some folks may be at odds with the 300-stylized slow-mo bloody battle scenes with copious blood spatter and spray -but that's just window dressing. The production has been pretty consistent in paying attention to smaller details too, and the hired historical consultants are helping keep them in check.

I also have to correct myself on something else I said. I'd surmised this wasn't a story about THE Spartacus, but actually it is. Perhaps it was reading something along the lines of "this isn't Kubrik's Spartacus" coupled with the character Batiatus naming his newly purchased Thracian gladiator 'Spartacus' after some famous predecessor to hype him up in the gladiatorial arena for the crowds - kinda like WWE. But watching the show unfold in the episodes and seeing his background and who the major players are, this is THE Spartacus after all. His being Thracian, a gladiator in Capua for Batiatus, working with Crixus... everything is lining up to be his story. Fictionalized, of course, this is TV. Well that and the actual historical accounts are few and in some details contradictory.

So yes, this isn't a straight up documentary style telling of the Spartacus story - there is entertainment to dole out to the viewers - but the balance seems pretty fair. It isn't quite as 'dry' or 'BBC-ish' as HBO's Rome, but that's neither better nor worse, just different style. The production team is keeping everything on track - a team that includes Sam Rami. The writing has been consistent - no 'where the hell did that come from' stuff. The casting of the major players is working out great - no slackers. Even the minor characters are generally cast well, whether they survive for more than an episode or not. Extra kudos to John Hannah's Batiatus and Lucy Lawless's Lucretia - awesome pairing of talent. And John Hannah - he makes this series work at an above-par level.

Let's see - I talked about 300-style gladiatorial battles with lots of blood in those scenes; attempts to maintain historical accuracy balanced with entertainment requirements; good production and casting -- what's left? Oh - the steamy side. Nakedness happens almost every episode. Folks in the arena stands boinking during gladiator matches, women flashing their breasts from the stands. Half naked slaves all over the ludus. Batiatus and Lucretia both have 'fluffers'. Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) naked. When roman women wanna see naked gladiators they see naked gladiators - does nothing for me but I'm sure the lady viewers approve.
Oh yeah - and most recently - a crucifixion! Didn't see that coming. Yeah, they mentioned doing that to unruly slaves, but when one gladiator-to-be tries to kill Spartacus he is not only crucified, but they cut off his junk (elephant sized to boot) to try to make him confess who put him up to it. Yikes. Bonus: in one scene a dude's head hits the stone lip of a bathing pool and TEETH fly out of his face - awesome!

My guess, if you liked the movies 300 and/or Gladiator, you'll like this show. If you liked HBO's Rome, you'll like this show. If you like serialized story arcs, bloody combat, naked women, you'll like the show.

You can't catch the series on TV if you don't have the Starz network on cable/satellite, but there are other means. If you have a Netflix account you can stream the episodes - they put the new episodes up as they come out. I'm sure there's pirated versions all over the 'net as well. Most likely there will be DVD/BluRay sets for sale in the future as well.

Starz has already ordered a 2nd season but production is sort of on hold at the moment. Unfortunately the actor that plays Spartacus, Andy Whitfield, was recently diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and is being treated. Hopefully he recovers. I'd hate for this series to go the way of "The Beast". If you missed "The Beast" it was Patrick Swayze's final series, one season done before he died. And it was a pretty good series too.

Edit 1: This series just keeps amping things up. The last 5 minutes of episode "Whore" are insane!
Edit 2: This first season of the series continued to get better as it went. Definitely worth watching all the way through!
Edit 3: Just watch the damn thing. Once you get past the first four episodes you'll forget about them while swimming in the awesome of the rest of the series.

Edit 4: September 12, 2011  Just heard the sad news that Andy Whitfield, the actor that played Spartacus, died on Sep 11. He was 36. 

(original post 16 March 2010)

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