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Reviewed by Jason Zingale
t’s a story many are familiar with – that of the Thracian warrior who was betrayed by the Romans, forced into slavery, and reborn a gladiator – but while the Starz-produced drama is clearly inspired by the legend of Spartacus, it takes many liberties along the way. And though “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is likely to draw comparisons to other likeminded properties such as “Rome,” “300” and “Gladiator,” it’s definitely its own beast due to a combination of stylized digital effects, erotic sex scenes, and the dirtiest mouths this side of “Deadwood.” While it's true that the show can often get distracted by its insatiable thirst for blood and sex, those who stick with it long enough will discover a drama that, while admittedly a trashy soap opera at times, is much more than just a guilty pleasure.
Andy Whitfield stars as Spartacus (though he's quick to point out that's not his real name), a soldier who joins the Roman auxiliary in a campaign against the Gatae tribes that threaten his people, only to rebel when the general in charge, Gaius Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker), decides to break their agreement by seeking his own glory. Spartacus’ treachery doesn’t sit well with Glaber, who was embarrassed in the process, and so he’s sent to Capua to be executed in the arena. But when Spartacus survives against all odds, and Senator Albinius decides to spare his life, a lanista named Quintus Lentulus Batiatus (John Hannah) purchases him with the intent of training him to become a gladiator. Though Spartacus has no interest in serving his new master at first, Batiatus eventually wins him over when he agrees to help free his enslaved wife (Erin Cummings) in exchange for his loyalty.
That’s just one of many storylines that pop up over the course of the first season, and it would probably be the least interesting of the bunch if the relationship between Spartacus and fellow gladiator Crixus (Manu Bennett) wasn’t played out like some tacky, testosterone-fueled WWE rivalry. In fact, while Whitfield’s Spartacus is easily more charismatic than Kirk Douglas’ emotionless portrayal in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film, he’s probably one of the least developed characters in the cast. Only his scenes with Jai Courtney (as Varro, Spartacus’ only friend at the ludus) give him something to do other than yell, fight, or look pissed off, and it’s easy to see why some people gave up on the show so quickly, because that’s about all he does for the first few episodes.
Thankfully, the series isn’t just about its title character. John Hannah, in particular, steals the show as Batiatus, a man who has bigger aspirations than running a training school for gladiators – namely, political office – and his wife, Lucretia (Lucy Lawless), will do whatever it takes to help him claw his way to the top of the social ladder, even if that means befriending the bratty daughter (Viva Bianca) of Senator Albinius. He also has a few henchmen on his payroll (including former gladiator Ashur, played by Nick Tarabay) that handle his dirty work – a fact that comes back to bite him later in the season. It’s exactly this sort of political intrigue and deceit that makes the series worth watching, filled with some of the most shocking, jaw-dropping moments on television.
But “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is still primarily about gladiators, and I’d wager that half of the season is dedicated to training sequences and arena battles. The stunt work is top-notch (not only for a television show, but one that features at least one major battle every episode), so it’s a shame to see it cheapened by low-grade CG blood. Though it’s clearly meant to add to the visual style, it’s used almost to comic effect, with blood flowing like water as it spews from its victims. The fact that most of the show is shot in front of a green screen certainly doesn’t help, and it’s a bit of a mixed blessing, because while there’s no way the show could have attained its epic scope without relying on digital effects, the illusion is often ruined because you can tell it’s not real.
For as much CG blood that’s splattered on the show, there’s almost as much nudity to match it. Lawless is hardly shy strutting around in her birthday suit, and there’s at least one softcore sex scene per episode. It’s a little unsettling at first, as if the producers are depending on shock value to attract viewers, but it eventually just becomes a part of the background. Not that “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is entirely innocent in regards to its graphic tone, but while there’s plenty of sex and violence to be had, it’s the complex relationships and outstanding dialogue that will keep you coming back for more. Just be sure you have the patience (and the stomach) to see the series through to its inevitable conclusion, because it definitely takes some time to reach its full potential.
Special Features: Unlike its premium channel competitors, Starz has packed the Season One Blu-ray release of “Spartacus” with hours of bonus material including a Spartacus Historicus: Pop-Up History trivia track on every episode, cast and crew commentaries on eight episodes including the pilot and season finale, extended cuts of Episodes 1, 2, 6 and 8, and enhanced digital effects on Episodes 5 and 13. There’s also a host of featurettes ranging from a behind-the-scenes look at gladiator boot camp, discussions on the show’s historical inaccuracies and the depiction of sex, the stylized use of green screen and digital effects, a fight montage, and even a gag reel.