February 3, 2011

Spartacus: Blood and Sand



The wife and I have been watching Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Created by Steven S. DeKnight and produced by Sam Rami, the show is a Starz’s attempt to compete with the original programming consistently drawing viewers to HBO and SHOWTIME.

The first series focuses on the early life of Spartacus, prior to the more “documented” events surrounding his slave rebellion against the Roman Empire. The show opens with Spartacus as an unnamed Thracian allied with Roman forces to push back the invading Getae. When the commanding officer, Legatus Glaber, breaks the promises he made to secure Thracian aid and orders his combined forces toward an entirely different war on an entirely different front, Spartacus refuses.

His refusal ignites the rest of the Thracians. They turn on their Roman masters, attack Glaber and retreat back to their lands, hoping to return before the Getae can rape and pillage with abandon. Spartacus arrives in enough time to save his wife, Sura, but not their home. His village burns. His people’s blood wets the surrounding earth.

Desperate, he and his wife flee.

They outrun the Getae hordes, but cannot escape Glaber. As punishment, the Legatus sentences Sura to slavery and Spartacus to execution. The Thracian "traitor" will face four gladiators in the Arena. Death by spectacle.

And so, Glaber unknowingly sets a man on his path to becoming a legend.

On first impression, the show was…okay. The first two episodes were shallow. The writing was weak. The focus was all gore and sex. Fighters spit blood and teeth. Severed limbs flail while stumps gush. Blades split heads wide, revealing quivering skull-meat. The sexual content is just as explicit with full frontal nudity from both sexes and frequent simulated-sex shot from “tasteful foreign film angles”. I don’t mind either one of those as long as there’s enough depth in the material to give them the punch they should carry.

The cinematography and the acting were really the two things that kept us watching. The show obviously doesn’t have the budget of a blockbuster film and for some reason American productions never allot enough time for action choreography. Spartacus gets around that. The show is shot with a nice mixture of real sets and digital effects. The fight scenes are heavily stylized and visually stunning. 300 is probably the closest comparison, but I think Spartacus succeeds where the big screen Frank Miller adaptation failed.

The cast is exceptional. John Hannah is wonderful as Batiatus, the owner of the gladiator school with dreams of greater glory. He relishes his role and stops just sort of chewing scenery while delivering easily the best lines of the entire series. Lucy Lawless sheds Xena for good, delivering a nuanced performance as Lucretia, Batiatius’s wife. She’s a regal woman who supports her husband by any means necessary, yet she’s desperately in the love with one of the gladiators and underneath her polished exterior she's terrified that she will remain childless as middle age approaches. Somehow, Andy Whitfield manages to be a vulnerable badass, a naive and world weary Spartacus.

This may not sound like enough reason to keep watching, but I’m glad I stuck with it. The writing finds its voice around episode three and the show never lets up. The dialogue improves. The characterization remains solid and consistent, nothing wish-washy in order to artificially create drama. The pacing is always perfect. The plotting ingenuous.

After finishing Season 1, if I had to fault the show with anything at all, it would be the continued reliance on gore and sex. Even with stellar writing, at times, it feels a little forced as if inserted by rote and mandated by producer edict. One particular episode, "The Thing in the Pit", almost carried the gore a little too far. But overall, it's a minor quip compared to everything else.

You can purchase it fairly reasonably on Amazon or stream it on Netflix like we did while trapped in the Snowpocalypse of 2011.





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