Monday, December 19, 2011

Spartacus: Blood and Sand

Despite having watched very little of the show itself, Spartacus: Blood and Sand has gotten its fair share of coverage here on the tv blog during the last couple years. It all started when the TV Sluts got to sit in at the Comic Con panel which made us all feel extra special, and then when the show began the pilot was available on Netflix. But then I didn't have access to Starz and the show kind of fell off my radar.

Until September of this year, when the show's star, Andy Whitfield, died of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and all of a sudden Spartacus was back in the news.

The show had been working on a prequel series while Whitfield was in treatment, but as it became clear their star would not be up to returning to the physically grueling role, they replaced him (with his blessing I was gratified to hear). So here we have a hit show (by modest Starz standards) that was replacing its lead actor after only one season. My curiosity was raised and I found myself wanting to see if the show was actually any good.

When I wrote about the pilot episode it was in the context of a Secret Boyfriend of the Week post, and yeah, there is a LOT of flesh on display in this show. I am sure you all know of its hyper-reality elements similar to the film 300, and every episode has its fair share of fight scenes and sex.  But it's actually a lot more complex than that. After the pilot, the bulk of the action takes place in the villa of Batiatus and Lucretia (Lucy Lawless!), the folks who bought our hero at the end of the pilot episode. Basically, they are the people who train/own the gladiators and rich Romans rent them out to appear in games or in private exhibitions. Think of them as the people who own the racehorse--and have pinned all their future hopes on one particular stud.

I told you, I'm Lucy Lawless, not Xena.

The plots swirl around Spartacus sure, but it's more about how his arrival and rise to stardom in the arena affects the other characters. Batiatus' ambition knows no bounds and he'll do whatever it takes to increase his power and wealth. Then there's the other gladiators (who are none too pleased to have this upstart take all the glory) and even the servants in the home get in on the action. That's only the tip of the iceberg; there's a lot of subplots working here and the show has a feel of a manor house drama. Everyone is in the same place geographically, but not in terms of status or happiness.

Through it all, Spartacus is driven to be reunited with his wife who was also sold into slavery when he was captured as a deserter from the Roman army. I was happy to see that particular subplot got resolved about halfway through the season in a way that made sense (no spoilers here though). Just when I thought things were going to start to get old, the writers surprised me by taking the story in a new direction. Basically, there's more here in common with HBO's Rome than I had expected. It's clear this show was well thought-out before it ever started shooting and the pacing and complexity of the story really surprised me.

So it's kind of like Upstairs, Downstairs and Downtown Abbey...only with more swords and sandals. And boobs.

The first season certainly ended in an intense and surprising finale, and I definitely plan on watching Season 2 whenever I can get my hands on it. There's a new Spartacus to break in, and I can only hope that Liam McIntye can carry on Andy Whitfield's legacy. I was expecting someone who just looked good in a loincloth, but Whitfield really impressed me with his acting.

If you are a fan of period drama, naked flesh, intrigue, vengeance, and gratuitous yet awesome violence, I really suggest you check out the first season. The second season (Spartacus: Vengeance) is set to air in January 2012. There's a four minute preview of the new season available on the Starz website.

You've got your work cut out for you, Liam. And large shoes to fill.

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