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Into the Arena: A Few Quick Thoughts on Starz's "Spartacus"

Some of you have asked what I thought about Starz's blood- and sex-laden drama series Spartacus. After watching the first four episodes that were sent out for review, my thoughts on the series are just as muddled as they were when I first heard about the project.

Created by Steven DeKnight, Spartacus recounts the exploits of a Thracian warrior (Andy Whitfield) betrayed by the Romans, torn away from his wife, and forced to compete as a gladiator in a series of vicious battles for the amusement of the public. His only desire: to train as hard as possible in the ludus (gladiator school) in order to win, so that that he can finally be reunited with his wife, who has been sold into slavery. (He'll eventually launch a slave rebellion against the Romans.)

And when I say vicious battles, I mean vicious. The bloody and gruesome action is set against a series of a computer-rendered backdrops that recall 300, without that production's gargantuan budget. Which basically means a never-ending parade of slow-motion, hacked body parts, and gratuitous curtains of blood. The visual style is intriguing for about five minutes or so but then it quickly becomes repetitive. (Seriously, there's only so many times you can see that curtain of blood appear behind Sparactus without beginning to yawn.)

Likewise, this being on pay cable means pushing the envelope as far as it will go in terms of both violence and sexual content... but rather than render Spartacus as daring or provocative, it seems there merely to draw attention away from the project's numerous flaws.

I've been negative about pilots before but Spartacus' first episode is just downright awful... as in laughably bad. While the plight of Spartacus is meant to be a gripping and horrific journey, it was impossible not to laugh out loud at the wooden acting (some of it quite terrifyingly bad), gratuitous nudity (both male and female), and absurd dialogue.

I also felt extremely sorry for the talented John Hannah and Lucy Lawless to find themselves in this muck; they both deserve much, much better and their presence in the pilot seemed like mere afterthoughts.

Subsequent episodes do focus more on their characters but they're less richly plotted than any of the colorful cast on HBO's similarly period drama Rome. There's some improvement in the overall quality of the production but it felt not only extremely repetitive and I couldn't bring myself to care about any of the characters, not the leather loincloth-wearing gladiators nor the conniving members of Capua's ruling class. One can't help but feel that Polly Walker's Atia would have them all beheaded or poisoned within a day.

The Rome comparison will continue to crop up over the course of the first season. (The series has already been renewed for a second season.) While Rome also offered an ancient world drama that was drenched with sweat, blood, and sex, it did with an intelligence and wit, creating a period soap opera enacted against the inevitability of this society's downfall. Here, there's an intentional silliness to the action; Spartacus takes itself way more seriously than it should; rather than revel in the cheesiness of its sword-and-sandals spectacle and perhaps become subversive, its very seriousness draws more attention to the qualities the series is lacking.

It's clear that Starz hopes to take on HBO and Showtime in the original series arena but Spartacus won't make either of the pay cable giants shake in their sandals, unless it steps up its intelligence quotient and realizes that slickly-shot slo-mo sword fights are cool but they can't make up for a lack of substance.

Spartacus launches tonight at 10 pm ET/PT on Starz.


MyTBoosh said…
Thanks for the honest review, Jace. I was hoping that Spartacus might have some redeeming qualities but, unsurprisingly, it looks like that's not the case and just makes me miss Rome even more!
S Broggie said…
Yikes! Thanks for the warning.
Anonymous said…
Most reviewers believe they know everything but it is simply their own opinion. I don't think you should listen what he thinks but watch for your self and see what you think. Its good for Starz and the first episode was quite good. It will gradually get better. These critics, reviewers are retarded sometimes on how they base movies, shows, etc. It's their job so what do you expect them to say.
Anonymous said…
I absolutely agree with you. As I watched it I thought about the reviews that I would read today and how they would all say how cheesy it was. I was absolutely disappointed. This was a wanna-be of Gladiator and 300. BUT I will watch the next episode to see if it gets any better. Of the whole show, I liked the last 15-20 minutes of it.
rob said…
I enjoyed it for what it was. It's certainly not great television, but I found it funny (perhaps not intentionally so...) and full of naked women. It's good bad tv, in my book.
shaxs said…
So, I had not read any review prior to watching Spartacus. Unfortunately,k I completely agree with Jace..... While I was sitting there wa6tching, I kept asking myself "What the heck am I watching?". The blood gets old quickly. The acting was awwwwffullll. Its unfortunate as I had high hopes for this, but it was very hard to watch.

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