|Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse|
Spartacus: Blood and Sand is a strange brew of Rome, 300 and FHM, a sword-and-sandals epic for the lad-mag generation where gratuitous sex and violence meet cod-Shakespearean dialogue and togas. While many of us are familiar with the revolutionary leader Spartacus would become (think Kirk Douglas and all those people standing up), this season attempts to fill in some of his back story. We see the unnamed Thracian warrior forging an alliance with the Romans, led by the nasty Legatus Claudius Glaber, to defend his village, only to turn against them as they abandon his fellows to pursue their own ends. Captured, the warrior is sentenced to death by armed combat but manages to best his would-be executioners. Spotting an opportunity for career progression, gladiator-owner Quintus Lentulus Batiatus purchases him for his ludus, bestowing upon him the name of Spartacus. What follows sees ‘Spartacus’ trying to earn freedom for himself and his wife by undertasking training, becoming in the process both people’s favourite ‘the champion of Capua’ and an important figure in all sorts of political machinations across all levels of society.
This series comes from the Raimi-Donen-Tapert production house, and two of those names were responsible for Xena: Warrior Princess. With Xena herself, Lucy Lawless, in the cast, thoughts of this previous show were never far from my mind.
You get the impression that the showrunners were hoping for outrage from conservative viewers, and certainly take full advantage of the openness of cable television to nudity and gore, but the violence is so cartoony and the sex so harmless that, for the most part, the spectacle merely bores. The look of the show is successful to varying degrees; while the interiors and sets are solid enough, the BBC documentary-style special effects recreations of the arena and city leave much to be desired. In terms of direction, the opening episode is jam-packed with ‘floating-leaf’ moments, overwrought televisual shorthand for emotional depth or artistic flourish that probably look good on paper but almost never translate to the screen without being inadvertently comedic. This is fortunately reined in with later episodes, but there are still occasional attempts at visual poetry which fail either due to their sheer incongruity or the lack of budget. The frequent use of naff green screen special effects and slo-mo fight sequences (the usual jaw crunches, blood splatters and heads flying) also grate. On a slightly churlish note, the main characters do seem rather too kempt for ancient Italy.
One of the main problems with the show is the wildly varying tone. While some of the cast seem to realise that the low budget and excessive sex and violence mean it all comes across as somewhat camp, and pitch their performances accordingly, others approach it as though it were deadly serious. This odd mix, together with the vast range of accents (who knew there were so many Antipodeans in Italy back then?!) occasionally make it feel like a late-night equivalent of one of those Australian children’s programmes that CBBC was full of in the mid-nineties. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I doubt it was the intention of Steven S. DeKnight when he created the show.
The undoubted highlights of the show are John Hannah and Lucy Lawless as power-hungry ludus owner Batiatus and his wife Lucretia. Both get their characters spot on from the off, playful yet menacing and with a nice line in meaningful scowls. Lawless also does well when paired with Viva Bianca as spoilt rich girl Ilythia, wife of Glaber and a nasty piece of work. Their bitchy one-upmanship lights up the screen. The titular Thracian himself, model-turned-actor Andy Whitfield, is certainly charismatic and brings a certain amount of gravitas to the role. Sadly Whitfield was diagnosed with cancer after this season and was unable to return to the series before his untimely death at the age of 39, so we won’t know what else he could have done with the character. Other cast members who give particularly worthy performances are Jai Courtney as Varro, a character so nice that you know he can’t be long for this world, and Nick E. Tarabay as Ashur, one of those brilliantly oleaginous characters you just love to hate.
In fairness, later episodes do use the sex and violence to better effect, as the writers seem to realise that both only work as useful narrative tools in the correct context: a bout of sex between unwitting enemies and a heartbreaking duel between friends show how effective they can be when done right.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand gets to live, but only just. It starts poorly, but if you manage to work past the early episodes it develops into an oddly addictive watch. By the time the season reaches its conclusion, in a very satisfying bloodbath, you will definitely want to know what happens next, with a final speech from our hero promising that the true fight has only just begun…