If there was ever an era that was perfect to be made into a pay-cable TV series, it's ancient Rome. Courtly intrigue, coupled with the excesses that the Romans indulged in -- glorious conquest, opulent wealth, killing for entertainment, sex as a distraction from boredom -- form the perfect recipe for mass entertainment. Why else do you think Gladiator won an Academy Award? The HBO series Rome tried to capture that glory, and succeeded; unfortunately, it was too expensive to last more than two seasons. Starz is following a different route, however -- they're emulating the film 300, which re-created ancient Greece on a budget by using computers and green screens. There are sets in Spartacus, of course, but they're far from the massive exteriors of Rome, and most of their characters (like the Spartans in 300), require very little costuming. I don't know what budgetary category "washboard abs" falls under (catering?), but it ain't costumes.
But what it lacks in elaborate sets and decadent outfits, Spartacus makes up for in spraying blood, slow-mo sword fights and naked bodies pressed against each other. Taking as much from Gladiator as from the original 1960 movie, the first episode of Spartacus follows an unnamed Thracian warrior as he fights alongside the Romans, is betrayed by them, and is arrested and sold into slavery. After a victory in the arena against seemingly insurmountable odds (one worthy of Russell Crowe's Maximus), he is given the name Spartacus, that of a great Thracian king, and sent to gladiator school. In that time, we get four slow-mo fight scenes, two slow-mo sex scenes and approximately 5,000 severed limbs, complete with slowly arcing gouts of blood. So if you found 300 to be a colossal waste of time, you probably won't like this show. But if you found 300 to be colossally amazing (I kinda did), then you'll be in hog heaven, because the slop is rich, and there's more of it every week, if the next three episodes I've seen are any indication.
The cast is mostly unfamiliar faces, with a few exceptions: John Hannah of The Mummy franchise (and Four Weddings and a Funeral, if you prefer), plays Batiutusthe gladiator camp's owner, and therefore Spartacus' owner. His wife Lucretia is played by Lucy Lawless, who is a lot more refined than Xena: Warrior Princess here and wears much better wigs. Glaber, the ambitious Roman general who is struck by and gets his revenge on Spartacus, is played by Legend of the Seeker's Darken Rahl himself, Craig Parker, who coincidentally played Bellerophon on Xena. And Doctore, the head trainer at the camp, is played (again, coincidentally) by the messenger who was famously kicked into a bottomless pit at the start of 300. There may be an analogy in which Spartacus resides at the bottom of a pit, beneath the movie 300, but I'm not going to make it, because I actually enjoyed the first episode, as well as the three that come after.
Like 300, Spartacus isn't going to win any awards, but it has everything an audience could want -- violence, blood and nudity. It's like the Jersey Shore of the ancient world, except someone occasionally gets hit with a war hammer. Fans of Rome will get their courtly intrigue thanks to Batiatus' maneuvering for political power against a rival gladiator owner (which builds as the episodes progress), and Gladiator fans get a nice romantic subplot thanks to Spartacus holding out hope that his wife is still alive somewhere. Oh, and 300 fans get to see men's legs get cut off in slow motion on a regular basis. There's something for everybody -- even Red Shoe Diaries fans.
What did you think of Spartacus: Blood and Sand? Draw your line in the sand below.
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