A series borne out of the necessity to allow Spartacus actor Andy Whitfield the time to recover from Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (which he sadly never did, necessitating a re-casting), this second run is a half-length prequel season (apparently expanded from a single episode planned for the second season) which permits the showrunners to fill out some of the back stories of the characters. Sensibly bookended with a reminder of the bloodbath at the conclusion of Blood and Sand, Gods of the Arena takes us back in time, finding a younger Quintus Batiatus (John Hannah) trying to escape from the shadow of his father and take his first steps on the road to his dream of political office. It's a familiar set-up, yet one with a few crucial differences. While Batiatus’s relationship with his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) is the same, he is great friends with future nemesis Solonius. Likeable beefcake and future champion gladiator Crixus (Manu Bennett) is but a good-for-nothing slave, while the current champion is rockstar gladiator Gannicus (Dustin Clare). The Arena we are familiar with is still under construction, so the fighting takes place in a far more intimate venue which makes for some rather more intense bouts.
The show is still far too formulaic, with episodes building up to fights which are never particularly surprising. The background gladiators remain underdeveloped, with some throwaway rivalries and romances that do little to enamour them to us. Some of the storylines too just feel like rehashes of what we have seen before, with the new generation of new fish gladiators and a doomed love story both feeling especially has-been. With this being a prequel, we have a good idea of who is going to live or die, and the only interest comes from guessing how soon people are going to pop their clogs.
With John Hannah and Lucy Lawless having been the shining lights of Blood and Sand, it’s lovely to have them back again as the stars. Hannah does a great job here at playing a convincingly callow Batiatus, sparring nicely with his father Titus (a well-cast Jeffrey Thomas). Without the presence of Ilythia for Lucretia to plot with, Lawless is instead paired with naughty widow Gaia, played with verve by Jaime Murray. While the character initially appears to be simply an Ilythia stand-in, she actually has a rather interesting place in the story, and Murray can play sneaky-slutty in her sleep (I fondly remember her as Lila in the second season of Dexter). The role of Batiatus’s adversary in this season falls to Stephen Lovatt (Neighbours’s Max Hoyland!) as Tullius, who has great fun torturing the rest of the cast. It’s nice to watch how relationships came about, with the character of Ashur in particular getting welcome depth. It’s also good to meet Gannicus, given the role he plays in the later story, and Clare does well with the underwritten part. The direction, writing and special effects are all improved as well, with familiar capable hands like writing team Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancheron (Dollhouse) and director John Fawcett (Ginger Snaps) onboard. The fact that it is less than half the length of the first season also works in its favour.
A stronger warrior than its predecessor, Gods of the Arena is not without its faults but the headlining of John Hannah and Lucy Lawless and the reduced running time are very welcome. While the first season only just made it out the arena alive, this one gets a far more certain thumbs up.