April 17, 2010

Kill Them All!

You may not know it from reading this blog, but film isn't the only thing that entertains me. I am an avid follower of any type of performance art. Theatre, music, and spoken word are just as interesting and provocative as any movie out there. In this mix, television is the one that usually gets kicked to the curb. TV serials usually aren't taken all that seriously, and are often viewed as cheap, fast entertainment. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of good shows out there. South Park has stayed consistently funny for 14 seasons, Lost continues to baffle the mind as well as thrill the heart, and Glee has managed to successfully translate what amounts to a Broadway musical into small, weekly episodes. (By the way, if you don't watch Glee, you totally should. It's amazing!) One of my favorite new shows just ended its inaugural season. This show in question could not be more different from the shows I just mentioned. Aimed specifically at adults, this show spills gallons of blood and undresses countless women per episode. I am, of course, referring to Spartacus: Blood and Sand, the new powerhouse series on Starz. The season finale only aired a few hours ago, so I thought now was as good a time as any to lay it on the line. Is this "historically accurate" portrayal of Roman culture worth seeing? You bet your ass it is!

Spartacus tells the story of the slave who rose from a gladiator to the legendary leader of a rebellion against Rome. This first season only deals with his time as a gladiator. After being coerced in to fighting for, and being subsequently betrayed by, the Romans, an unnamed Thracian deserts from his battalion in order to save his wife from an invading force. This doesn't sit to well with commanding officer, the Legatus Claudius Glaber, who immediately captures the Thracian and sells him and his wife into slavery. The Thracian is bought by one Quintus Lentulus Batiatus, the owner of a gladiatorial ludus in the town of Capua. Under the name of Spartacus, the Thracian enters the school and begins training, with the promise that, should he win the arena, Batiatus will find his wife for him. Spartacus quickly makes an enemy in the esteemed gladiatorial champion Crixus, matches wits with Batiatus' wife, Lucretia, finds a friend in fellow slave Varro, and, all the while, dreams of freedom with his wife. Things don't go according to plan, and the ending sees Spartacus initiating the revolt that would propel him and his fellow slaves into legend. The story and writing are weak in the first few episodes, but that's understandable. The writers needed to introduce us to this myriad of characters, so, there wasn't much room for good storytelling. It really picks up in quality as the season progresses, and the final few episodes are some the best written episodes of any show playing this season. Apart from the main arc of Spartacus' story, there are some juicy side plots to keep you interested as well. Batiatus is revealed early on to be a very ambitious man who has his sight set on public office, and will gladly kill anyone who gets in his way or wrongs him. His machinations over the course of the season are some of the most devious and cunning you will ever see. Another plot involves Crixus as he juggles the sexual demands of Lucretia, and his love for her slave, Naevia. I imagine it sounds confusing, all these different plots being thrown at you, but that's the great thing about serial television. It offers the room to explore multiple side plots the movies don't allow. Every plot here is given the space to be fully fleshed out; every plot is resolved in a satisfactory manner. This show is an example of smart writing. You will not be disappointed.

There are too many characters to discuss them all in detail, so, I will just touch on the heavy hitters. New comer Andy Whitfield plays Spartacus, and he's awesome, wonderfully capturing the anger and pain required for the character. It is at times a little over the top, but, that's ok. Everything in this show is over the top, so, it's alright! Not only does he deliver some good dialogue and solid acting, he gets to kick a ton of ass and create oceans of blood. The same goes for Manu Bennett as Crixus, Spartacus' rival. His is probably the harder role to play, if only because it calls for a good amount of full frontal nudity. (Oh yeah! The nudity in this show is not restricted to women only. The men here show just as much!) His is the consistently more emotionally interesting role, as his affair with Naevia, played quite effectively by Lesley-Ann Brandt, is always on his mind and in danger of getting discovered! It's a great performance from Bennett, who, until now, had yet to impress me as an actor. John Hannah, of Mummy, fame, plays the corrupt and determined Batiatus. He also does fine job as well. Not only does he have some of the funnier lines in the show, but he sells his evil plans so well, you feel chills going up and down your spine. Lucy Lawless, aka Xena Warrior Princess, plays Lucretia, a woman just as manipulative and ambitious as her husband. Not only does she successfully mask her many sexual encounters with Crixus from her husband, her manipulations of a woman named Illithyia, played with a seductive ferocity by Viva Blanca, are terrifying and mind boggling. The last main performance falls to Peter Mensah as Doctore, Spartacus' gladiatorial teacher. As the only man with a shred of honor in the entire show, Mensah does a nice job as the man who keeps order, but is not afraid to do his own share of as kicking when it is called for. Every performance in this show is bombastic, over the top, and ridiculous. But, that's the way it should be. A show like this simply will not work with subtle and muted performances. They need to be in your face and devoid of all delicacy, and in that sense, Spartacus succeeds admirably.

Just by viewing the trailer, you know that the creators of the show are big fans of 300. Every single element that made 300 good is used here, but ramped up to 11. For starters, there's the violence. Oh lordy, this is a bloody show! In the very first episode, we see an estimated 20 stabbings, 13 decapitations, 4 disembowlments, and 5 more creative methods of murder that I don't know the name for. You see swords shoved through chests, heads smashed to a pulp, faces removed, guts ripped out, and, on one occasion, brains bashed from skulls. There's even an explicit image of a castration. This is, quite possibly, the most brutal show to ever come along! And we wouldn't have it any other way! Like 300, the violence is hyper stylized, making good use of slo-mo and special effects to thrill the watcher. All I can say is, bravo! This is some of the most satisfying bloodshed I've seen on screen in a good while. The craziness doesn't end with the gore though. In another ramping up of a good quality from 300, there is a ton of sex in this show. In every episode, literally, every single one, you see someone naked. Let me tell you, you ain't never seen Lucy Lawless like this before! Most writers would attempt to put a point or meaning behind all the coital interactions on screen, but, in Spartacus, there's no point, and that's not a bad thing. This show is a bonafide guilty pleasure, full of elements you only admit to enjoying to your closest friends. Honestly though, I have no trouble admitting my affection for the show. Sure, it has torrents of blood and enough breast to fill the pages of Playboy, but it also boasts strong writing, a good story with a healthy amount of well utilized plot twists, and some solid acting.

Look, don't get me wrong. This is a "man" show, made by men to appeal to men. Men will enjoy it for all the reasons it's being advertised as. It's a loud, fun, raunchy, bloody as hell romp through Roman society! Others will enjoy it for other reasons, like smart storytelling, and performances as strong as the material will allow. Though it starts off on a weak note for the first few episodes, Spartacus: Blood and Sand hits its stride around episode four, and just keeps getting better, culminating in an absolutely brilliant and horrifically violent finale! It's schlock, to be sure. But, God Damn, it is good schlock! A-


  1. I watched the trailer for this a while back and was thrilled to see that one of my favourites, Lucy Lawless, was back again. Unfortunately I only have eight TV channels :( and none of them show Spartacus, so I'll have to wait in anticipation to watch it! This is the first review B&S that I've read - Definitely looking forward to it now :)

  2. It's streaming on Starz and Netflix watch instantly if you can't wait for the DVD.