In the US: Fridays, 10pm ET/PT, Starz
In the UK: Summer 2010
Every so often, someone will come along and claim of a British TV programme, "Of course, you wouldn't see that on US TV. It's too gritty/grimy/explicit [delete as appropriate]." These kind of people have never seen US cable TV.
HBO is the obvious standout when it comes to risk-taking, but Showtime and AMC are now pushing the envelope as well. But the latest arrival to decent, risk-taking TV programming in the US is Starz. As well as the likes of Crash and Party Down, Starz has just added Spartacus to its roster of edgy shows.
Imagine the violence and look of 300 coupled with the language of The Wire and the soft core porn of Caligula and you have Spartacus. Oh, yes - it has a subtitle: Blood and Sand. That's kind of a clue.
Betrayed by the Romans. Forced into slavery. Reborn as a Gladiator. The classic tale of the Republic’s most infamous rebel comes alive in the graphic and visceral new series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Torn from his homeland and the woman he loves, Spartacus is condemned to the brutal world of the arena where blood and death are primetime entertainment. But not all battles are fought upon the sands. Treachery, corruption, and the allure of sensual pleasures will constantly test Spartacus. To survive, he must become more than a man. More than a gladiator. He must become a legend.
Starring Australian actor, Andy Whitfield (McLeod's Daughters) as Spartacus, Lucy Lawless (Xena: Warrior Princess) as Lucretia, John Hannah (The Mummy, Four Weddings and A Funeral) as Batiatus and Peter Mensah (300, The Incredible Hulk) as Doctore, this unique mix of live action, graphic novel effects and brutal battle sequences is set to make "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" an epic television event.
Is it any good?
You know, for something with that much violence, nudity and sex, you'd have thought it would have been a bit more interesting, wouldn't you? Slightly problematically, it's not. But only slightly.
Put aside all thoughts of Kubrick's Spartacus: this is sword-and-sandals fare for the post-300 generation. Essentially a series of graphic novel images strung together with a narrative, Spartacus: Blood and Sand re-imagines (that is, ignores bits of history it doesn't like, while keeping the trappings) to tell the tale of the 'Thracian' gladiator Spartacus who led an uprising of slaves against the Romans in the first century BC. He's only a bit Thracian, mind - he's 90% posing pouch, even in Winter.
The first episode is mostly flashback while Spartacus waits in the dungeons for his first gladiatorial bout. We learn how he lived with his wife in Thrace, how he joined up with the Romans to fight a common enemy, how he was betrayed and how he ended up in the Roman town of Capua to become a gladiator.
This is all told with the maximum amount of blood-letting, amputation, throat slitting and decapitation possible. There's also a bit of slow-mo sex thrown in, although nothing too graphic, as well as some full-frontal (female) nudity, topless (all genders) nudity and a few lesbians thrown in for good measure.
Against this foreground of stylised, historically inaccurate violence that pretty much apes 300's visual style in every detail, we have the political machinations of the Romans. So far, neither the writers' nor the actors' hearts are in this, since it's pretty stodgy stuff compared to all that slashing and cutting and it's not going anywhere fast.
In fact, they're clearly so bored with having to write actual dialogue rather than the cod-authentic Greek/Roman dialogue they occasionally throw in, they decide to pepper more or less every sentence with the f-, s- and c- words, as well as various imaginative variations thereof (John Hannah's "He has his fingers in everyone's arseholes. He only has to twiddle them and they shit gold" should give you an idea of where we're coming from here). I'm not generally against swearing in TV shows, but this is swearing because you can't think of any decent lines, rather than because it helps the drama.
Despite being a motley collection of British, Australian and New Zealand actors, everyone - with the exception of John Hannah (yes, him from Rebus, Four Weddings, etc) - is trying their best to do an English accent, with varying degrees of success ranging from hopeless (Erin Cummings as Spartacus's wife and about the only American in the main cast) to very good (the Brits, naturally enough, as well as Craig Parker and Viva Bianca). Generally, performances are good, if a little subdued and lacking in fire at times.
Since this is a Sam Raimi-Rob Tapert production (previous productions: Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys), be not surprised that Tapert's wife, Lucy Lawless (Xena herself), is in this, mobilising an accent that alternates between English, New Zealand and occasionally American with every other line.
Nevertheless, this is at least a visual treat, with both the CGI-look (probably a budgetary choice as well as a stylistic one) and the set designs impressing. The CGI look does give it a slight air of unreality and detachment, however, and you might find it hard to actually care about any of the characters as a result. The fights are gruesome so if you like that, you'll enjoy Spartacus, since they come along every few minutes.
Still, with everyone being at their most sombre - it's almost like they think they're in I, Claudius or something - you can't help wish for a little more pizazz in the acting and writing departments. It's not bad and in a lot of ways it's good, but it could be a whole lot better.
- February 10, 2010: Third-episode verdict: Spartacus - Blood and Sand
A review of the first three episodes of the Starz TV series Spartacus: Blood and Sand
- April 4, 2011: Review: The Borgias 1x1-1x2
A review of the first two episodes of Showtimes' The Borgias, starring Jeremy Irons
- April 18, 2013: Review: Da Vinci's Demons 1x1 (Starz/FOX)
A review of the first episode of Starz's Da Vinci's Demons
- May 17, 2013: Your handy guide to true religions on TV - Hellenism and Religio Romana
All the scripted shows on Western, English-language TV that have not just featured Hellenism or Religio Romana but have actually shown them to be true in some way or other