15 February 2012

TV Series: Spartacus: Vengeance

Spartacus: Vengeance (2012) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1442449/

Starz is at it again, the third installment of the Spartacus series. I figured as I'd already written about "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" (S:BaS) and the prequel season "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena" (S:GotA) I should continue the trend as Spartacus rages on.

For a quick recap, season 1 of the series S:BaS shows the capture, enslavement, training and rise of Spartacus in the gladiatorial area. Unfortunately the star of the show, Andy Whitfield, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and began treatment. While giving Andy time to get better Starz made a prequel half-season, S:GoA, which gives us some background story to the House of Batiatus and some of the supporting characters. Unfortunately Andy Whitfield's first medical treatment didn't beat the cancer, so as he returned for another treatment round Starz had to re-cast the role of Spartacus to continue the show.  From what I recall Whitfield said they made a good choice for recasting the role. Sadly, Andy Whitfield succumbed to the cancer and died.
If you are new to the series and want to see all that happens before "Spartacus: Vengeance" (S:V) you can either watch S:GotA first followed by S:BaS to see everything unfold in chronological order, or you can watch them in broadcast order by watching S:BaS then S:GotA. Either order is fine, although it might make more sense to see S:GotA first. Just don't worry about the tail-end recap of S:BaS shown at the start. You can go from S:BaS directly into S:V without watching S:GotA and not miss any continuity, except for not knowing who a couple folks are that return from that prequel season. S:GotA is worth watching, just not critical. So if you do choose to watch the series from the start don't feel bad if you can't get a hold of S:GotA.

When S:V started broadcasting, the wife and I realized it had been a couple years since we'd seen S:BaS and our memories weren't as fresh as we thought. Well that and we had the S:GotA in-between to contribute to fading memory. So we decided to re-watch S:BaS before beginning S:V just to get back up to speed.  That's why this post is a little late out of the gate instead of immediately after S:V began its broadcast season.

This season brings a couple of cast changes. The most obvious is the casting of  Liam McIntyre as Spartacus. There is some resemblance to Whitfield, enough to be able to accept the recasting, a closer resemblance than, say, the Dick York/Dick Sargent recast of Darrin on "Bewitched". However McIntyre is also 10 years younger than Whitfield and that's almost more noticeable, moreso in his lacking the raw center of gravity Whitfield's Spartacus developed for the role by the end of S:BaS. I'm waiting to see if, as the season unfolds and McIntyre has more time to inhabit and mature in the role that the difference will be less noticeable. The poor guy has some sandals and subligaria to fill.
The second recasting was of the slave Naevia, Crixus' love interest. She was around for S:BaS and S:GotA, but apparently tried negotiating for a bigger slice. The negotiations fell through and Cynthia Addai-Robinson was cast as the new Naevia.  This casting causes more of the Darrin Effect than the Spartacus recast. This one is more jarring, along the lines of the two Beckys on "Roseanne".
Of the returning cast, Manu Bennett as Crixus is doing well to smooth over the changes. Thus far he has been able to portray much of the original Crixus / Spartacus relationship chemistry from his end. I think of all the players the greatest potential to expose any recasting weakness would occur in those interactions. And now with the arrival of the new Naevia casting poor Bennett as Crixus has to do double-duty to smooth over that transition as well. A lot rests on Crixus's shoulders to keep the show going smoothly as he is such a critical companion to both recast roles.

Three episodes in and I can see that the show was knocked on its heels at the loss of Whitfield, but it is hanging on and rebuilding. The returning cast is doing well to keep the momentum of those characters going. I can see that McIntyre will need time to really grow in to the role, but he is doing acceptably well.  So far the plans, machinations, treachery, backstabbing in all the sub-plots and arcs seem to be building nicely.  The incidentals that add seasoning to the stories - the bloodbath fights, copious nudity, creative euphemisms and cursing continues in the tradition established in the first two seasons.

I can't help but lament the loss of John Hannah's Batiatus. Yes, there was no way he was going to be returning for this season after the slaughter of everyone in House Batiatus at the end of season one. But still, Hannah did an awesome job as Batiatus and provided such a strong driving force for both season one and the prequel season. I have no idea if any other character is going to be able to match what Batiatus contributed in the first two seasons. Batiatus was an evil bastard through and through, shocking even to those who thought they were evil bastards. He will be missed.

Will this season end up as strong as season one? Only time will tell, but it seems to be on strong footing despite the changes and thus far seems to be heading in the right direction. The returning cast is doing well and their experience in their roles makes a great solid foundation. Hopefully as the season continues the new characters, and actors that portray them, mature.

Yes, way back at the beginning I was skeptical about how good this series would be, but after sticking it out past the first three episodes of season one I was hooked. The show won me over. If you haven't yet watched it, it is definitely worth watching from the start. And it is a great show to tide one over until "Game of Thrones" returns on HBO.

 ---- Update: 5 episodes in
The series is more mature in the best ways because of lessons learned by the preceding two seasons.  The storytelling is a bit tighter, the buildup and progression of dirty deeds done (lying, backstabbing, plotting, betrayals) are owned by the characters and fall in line with their personal character arcs as established through the series up to this point.
The new Spartacus, well, I'm still getting used to him. He's doing acceptably fine, but each time I see him I can't help but see he isn't Whitfield's Spartacus. I'm going to be kind and keep giving him time to take the role and own it for himself. As I mentioned before, the change in actors isn't near as jarring as it could have been, and nowhere near as jarring as the new Naevia.
Some of the scenes this season have felt a little off. Not any one actor's fault, more like scripting weaknesses, or reaching to recapture great things from the first two seasons and reuse them. There aren't many, but when they do happen and make me roll my eyes, ugh.

Generalities aside, this particular episode rocked in comparison to the first four. Part of that came from the return of Gannicus, which gives us some continuation of story from when we saw him last, in the prequel season.  It felt a bit more like the older near-season-end Sparacus episodes. I think the series is still in the right track.
I have to keep in mind that the first season of Spartacus really got going strong starting around episodes 4 and 5, I should grant at least as much leeway for season 2. And in all fairness they have been building steam up to this point, they've just had a few leaks along the way. I'm hoping it continues to gain speed and race headlong like season 1 did.

 ---- Update: Episode 7
Just had to stop in and say they showed one of the coolest kills yet in this episode. Spartacus cut a dude's face off, and as the body fell the brain fell out. I had to back up and rewatch that scene a couple times because it was so awesome. Even the "holy shit" faces on the witnesses are perfect.  It reminded me there was a face-cutting-off scene in "Equilibrium", except this one was much cooler looking.
If this show is doing anything right it is the special effects. But they are doing more right than that. The story the season is weaving is developing nicely. I think the show is doing quite well so far despite the sad setbacks.  As I mentioned before, production learned a lot in seasons 1 and 0 and it definitely shows. The maturity of production is outweighing the occasional weaknesses that show up from time to time.

---- Update: Season Finale
Wow. Just wow.
Appropriate bowing of head for lives lost in season finale. Love 'em or hate 'em they will be missed.

I wait in anticipation for the next season. It can't come soon enough.

---- Afterthoughts
Ok. I accept McIntyre as the new Spartacus.  It didn't exactly take all season to happen, but it did take a while. I'm sure that was partly due to re-watching S:BaS (season 1) immediately prior to S:V. Thus I suspect that anyone new to the series and watching the seasons in order will probably experience the same readjustment to new faces.
Readjustment pains aside, McIntyre did great. Production chose well. The series survives.
As for Naevia, well, I still haven't adjusted, but I can put up with it.

Sure each season of the series can test one's patience at times, but the payoffs are worth the wait.  Starz is doing good with this series. I hope they don't "HBO" it to death by cutting budget and driving off the talented folks or just killing the series outright with no warning.

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