Friday, September 17, 2010

Spartacus: Blood and Sand

So much screaming and stabbing. That is the basic premise behind the first season of “Spartacus: Blood and Sand”. The parts that involve neither stabbing nor screaming are built around naked breasts, beheadings, eruptions of blood, and intrigue.

The R-Rated Starz series is a retelling of the tale of Spartacus, a gladiator who led a slave rebellion in ancient Rome. Aside from the actual war, little is known about Spartacus the man, a detail that works in the producers favor and allows them to play fast and loose with the facts. The result is a ridiculous, violent melodrama. Imagine if “Gladiator” somehow had a baby with “300”, and the child was raised in “Melrose Place”. From the very beginning the series is nonstop, limb severing, backstabbing mayhem.
Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) is a Thracian who loves the hell out of his wife, Sura (Erin Cummings). In order to get the Romans to help them kill their enemies, the Thracians agree to suit up and go a-warring with them. Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker), the leader of the Roman Troops, betrays them, and their village is left defenseless. Spartacus incites his countrymen to desert in order to save their families from rape and pillage. He saves his wife, but their reunion is cut short when Glaber apprehends him. Sura is sold into slavery, and Spartacus is sentenced to death in the arena of Capua. Instead of dying like he was supposed to, Spartacus hacks his would be executioners to bits in front of a ravenous crowd.
Batiatus (John Hannah) runs a Ludus, which is where gladiators are trained, that has fallen on hard times. Driven by greed and an unquenchable thirst for power, fed by his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless), he sees an opportunity to make some cash. He buys Spartacus to capitalize on his sudden popularity, and tries to turn him into a legitimate gladiator.
Spartacus wants nothing more than to reunite with his wife, but the only way for him to accomplish this is to fight and win. In his way are Crixus (Manu Bennett), the current champion, and Doctore (Peter Mensah), a slave and former gladiator who trains the men.
Sex and violence fuel “Spartacus”. It is stuffed full of ripped dudes, women willing to take their tops off, and cascading waves of blood. At one point it rains blood. Everyone has an ulterior motive, everyone is out for number one, and it turns into a tangled web. This is the bloodiest soap opera you’ll ever see. Everything is a matter of life, death, love, lust, and betrayal.
The whole show is shot on greenscreen, and instead of trying to make everything look realistic, the filmmakers use the enhanced backdrops to augment the already heightened melodrama. Sunsets are more than red, the Ludus clings to the side of a massive cliff overlooking Capua, and the zealous crowds are epic in scope. The fights are full of slow motion leaping, where the combatants float through the air with swords drawn and battle cries on their lips. When some poor fool’s head is lopped off, blood spews over the camera. Everything element of “Spartacus” is over the top.
Initially the absurdity can be overwhelming and make the show difficult to watch. You get it. You’ve seen “300”. They’ve seen “300”. And they liked “300” a lot. Over time it does get better, and there is an honest-to-god story between moments of sex and violence. But until then the fight scenes are plentiful, and though completely preposterous, are fun to watch.
Creator and head writer Steven S. DeKnight does a decent job making the characters more than just caricatures. It takes some time, but they do get there. Despite a singularity of purpose, Spartacus is more complex than that. Crixus may be a jackass, but he is also capable of tenderness. Doctore carries the mental wounds of his only defeat, and driven by a sense of honor and duty, he longs to return the once great Ludus to its former glory. Even Batiatus and Lucretia aren’t completely without redemption. Hannah tries to bring some dignity to the series, but you can tell that he gave up after a while. No show with this many boobs can be classy. There is an almost “Showgirls” level of nudity. And what the hell, you get to see a slave jerk off Lucy Lawless, so that’s something.
One high point is the episode “The Thing In The Pit”, where, desperate for money, Batiatus enters Spartacus in a series of underground fights. There are no rules, no honor, and no glory in victory, only survival and money. One combatant cuts off the faces of his victims, who he kills with a giant hammer, and wears them like masks. The climactic scene is also pretty incredible. By that point you don’t think there is anything else they can do, but then they go completely nuts and pull out all the stops.
“Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is ludicrous and vulgar. There are many slights against men’s genitals (the phrase “Jupiter’s cock” is a common profanity), lots of sex, tons of brutal fights, and multiple scenes of guys shaving every part of their body. At times it is almost unwatchable, but at others it is a great deal of fun. The more you watch, the more twisted the plot gets, and as a result it becomes more entertaining. Sex is imminent, treachery lurks around every corner, and a violent death awaits everyone.
The DVD comes in a slick package, and in addition to the thirteen episodes there is a glut of bonus material. A number of episodes have commentary tracks, and one nice thing is that it is not always the same people. It is a good mix of behind the scenes voices, like writers, producers, and directors, as well as a cross section of the cast. There are a lot of different dynamics and perspectives, which makes the tracks interesting.
Also included are nine featurettes. They range from three to fifteen minutes long, and cover everything from general behind the scenes stuff, to the “Gladiator Camp” that the primary actors attended in order to learn how to fight and get huge. There are looks at various aspects of the special effects, and another where the producers talk about how, while they wanted to tell a historical story, they didn’t let pesky little things like facts get in their way. One extra that is nothing more than all of the most violent moments edited together, condensed into a single, greatest hits collection of brutality.
Filming of the second season was delayed due to star Andy Whitfield’s battle with lymphoma.

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