It's hard to know what the makers of Spartacus: Blood and Sand think they're doing. It could be the show is intended as a way:
- to exploit the liberal regulatory regime on US cable television to push the boundaries of acceptable taste
- to show us what a graphic novel, complete with rubbish dialogue and plotting, would be like if it were turned into a TV series
- to replace traditional dialogue with nothing but swearing
- to give Lucy Lawless some work
- to give lots of bad New Zealand and Australian actors work
- to educate and inform viewers who missed HBO's Rome about what life was like in Roman times
- to homage I, Claudius.
No matter, three episodes in, it's time to decide whether to keep watching or not.
After a curiously dull first episode, despite the explicit language, sex, violence et al, creator Steven S DeKnight decided to try to top his previous efforts. In fact, he tried to do it with every sentence. As I remarked on Friday, episode two went from full-frontal male nudity, through repeated usage of the F- and C-words while limbs were being hacked off to sex scenes where someone exploded in blood. Then we got Lucy Lawless in a see-through dress, being masturbated by a female slave, while her husband, John Hannah, swore at her, and was fellated by another female slave. And then the rest of the episode carried on in much the same vein.
It was, to put it bluntly, ludicrous.
Episode three, which handed writing duties off to Brent Fletcher, allowed the whole set-up to settle down a bit. Okay, we did get a bit of topless action and a live gladiator sex show. The swearing continued pretty freely as well, with Lawless seducing a gladiator with the immortal line, "I need your cock inside me. I need it inside me right now."
But although it didn't make things much less dull, it did at least try to offer us a slightly more thoughtful story, with John Hannah and Lucy Lawless trying to curry favour with a local senator, and Spartacus learning that he's still not all that compared to other seasoned gladiators. Although the gladiator underpants still seem a little ahistorical, it did feel less like a comic book and more of an attempt to say "this is what life was like then. Their morals were different, they acted different. We're not just doing this for your titillation."
Curiously, the only thing we haven't yet had are any gay liaisons, which given it was Roman times seems unlikely to say the least. Perhaps, the show's creators are thinking they don't want everyone to think a show in which 90% of the male characters are semi-naked, muscled and greasy is intended only for gay men – despite all the full-frontal female fun and lesbians already suggesting otherwise.
But come on, dudes. You know you want to. You know you should. Go look at the extended version of Spartacus to see how to do it subtly, if that's your worry (as if).
The show does have quite a few things going for it. Apart from its adult nature, the violence is very well choreographed and it looks great. It's entirely shot in the studio, which – laughable though the comparison otherwise is – gives it a real I, Claudius feel, right down to the cold studio lights trying their best to depict an intense Italian summer. And although it does play a little fast and loose with history, there are lovely touches of authenticity when you least expect them.
However, the acting almost universally needs a lot of work, the various attempts at English accents are incredibly ropey, the plot plods along horribly and there's not much to the characterisation beyond the percentage of dialogue devoted by each character to swearing.
As with the games themselves, there's a certain morbid fascination to watching Spartacus: Blood and Sand, just to see what they'll do next. The fact we know this is heading to a full-on slave revolt at some point – assuming they're not going to mess with history that much – means you know it's going at least somewhere. And it does look great, even if that look does come at the expense of involvement with the characters.
Nevertheless, if you're of a nervous disposition, don't watch this. If you're an expert on Roman history, don't watch this. If you like decent drama, well thought out plots, proper characterisation and involving direction, don't watch this.
Otherwise, you'll be as sound as a pound.
Carusometer rating: 4
Rob's prediction: Already renewed for a second season and provided they can amp up the pace a bit, it should run for at least another after that.
- February 10, 2010: Question of the week: what's acceptable TV viewing?
What's acceptable TV viewing?
- March 3, 2010: What Spartacus reminds me of: Peter Brooks' The Mahabharata
Spartacus: Blood and Sand reminds me of The Mahabharata