Monday, April 26, 2010

"Spartacus: Blood and Sand" Season One [Starz]

"Spartacus: Blood and Sand"
Starring Andy Whitfield, Lucy Lawless and John Hannah
Created by Steven S. DeKnight

For a show that begins each episode with a warning about historical accuracy, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" is actually quite a stylized show.  Shot with lots of green screens to blow out artsy backgrounds and slow motion and tons and tons of computer-generated blood-sprays and transitions, "Spartacus" feels much like watching weekly installments of the movie "300."  Even the music is stylistically similar.

But where "300" focuses mostly on simplistic plot progression in the form of escalating battle sequences, "Spartacus" throws a curve ball into all the style by actually introducing some intelligent plotting and characterization behind all the mayhem.

"Spartacus" (Andy Whitfield) is a Thracian soldier, who leads his own soldiers, allied with the Romans to defend his home.  But when the Roman army commander abandons the fight in order to gain political favor, Spartacus mutinies.  His men and his people are slaughtered, he is arrested and his wife is sold into slavery.  Sentenced to death, Spartacus finds himself in the gladiatorial arena.  But when he's able to defeat his executioners in combat, he catches the eye of Batiatus (John Hannah), a competitive slave owner in Capua.

Spartacus finds himself training at Batiatus' homestead, under the tutelage of Doctore (Peter Mensah, also of "300") and serving the needs and whims of Batiatus' vengeful wife, Lucretia (Lucy Lawless).  He finds allies and enemies among the other gladiators, including Crixus (Manu Bennett) the Champion of Capua.  After Crixus is bested in combat, Spartacus becomes champion, and discovers his wife is now dead.  Batiatus offers him a new reason to live: revenge.  But Spartacus' idea of revenge is quite different from Batiatus', especially when he learns who is ultimately responsible for her death.

It's hard to describe "Spartacus" because the plotting becomes rather twisty and complex.  There's a lot of political machinations in this show ostensibly about slaves beating the crap out of each other.  Batiatus and Lucretia prove themselves to be shifty, wily opponents for Spartacus, and taking them on and gaining freedom is not a task for the weak or the weak-minded.  The twists and turns and shifting alliances of the plot are often surprising, and well-played by an able cast.  The characters are well-defined, and no one is safe.  Characters you never expect to die will do so before the end of this season, and the finale is a game-changer in every way.

The season is not without fault.  It starts off slowly, to be sure.  The first few episodes feature a ton of violence and sex and not much in the way of the intricate plotting or character work that will follow. Whether this is meant to attempt to grab our attention as an audience with shock value and titillation, I'm not sure.  Luckily, I stuck with it, because the show improves considerably by the fifth episode or so.  By the time the season ended, I would gladly have moved directly into season two.  

The dialogue is a bit rough, too.  Swears and curses are sprinkled QUITE liberally throughout, with not a character in the mix not uttering words like "cock" or "fuck" multiple times.  It can be distracting at times, as though the writers were determined to be as dirty as possible in every way when making the show.  It's a good thing they decided plot was just as important, or "Spartacus" would have been an empty, dull experience like its pilot.  Once the show gains its focus, though, the violence becomes more a scalpal than a blunt sword, and the show uses it to great effect.  Sex, too.  There's plenty of it, but after the first couple episodes, rarely feels quite as gratuitous. 

"Spartacus" is a fun show.  Is it the greatest piece of TV art ever created?  No.  But it's characters are compelling and its storylines twisty and enjoyable.  And at the end of the day, that counts for a lot.  You should watch this one.