Spartacus Blood & Sand
I have been eagerly awaiting the debut of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Claiming to be “the Boldest Show on Television” with the visual panache of “300″ and the writer of the last (and best) season of “Angel”, Lucy Lawless nudity and a smoking hot protagonist, it seemed they had a good chance of living up to the hype.
But this show, produced by Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi, has some growing up to do.
Taking the folklore surrounding the Thracian gladiator who fought in a slave uprising in the Third servile war, Steven S. DeKnight adds some modern debauched flair. In the first episode, we see our hero start as a doting husband simply trying to defend his native village. He forges a Faustian alliance with the Romans to this end, which ends with him at odds with the Legionnaire Glabus (the angsty and sexy Craig Parker) who then takes him prisoner, meaning to bring him back to Rome and have him killed publicly in the gladiator pit to appease his embarrassment.
This plan backfires, as Spartacus puts up a mean fight, overcoming his opponents and gaining the crowds favor. Spartacus is consequently sold to Batiatus (John Hannah), a once affluent ludus owner who’s wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) has not given an heir. The couple’s scheme seems to have no downside, and may help restore their fortunes.
Next we see Spartacus train to be a gladiator, bullied by the seasoned gladiators, all while the Romans scheme.
This plot is riveting, intermixed with authentic touches such as the gladiators bathing by being slathered with oil, and .having the oil scraped off, which makes us history buffs very happy (non history buffs probably enjoy it as well… I’m looking at you, Jessica). Little touches in the set and costuming make a lush and historical background, just ripe to have a larger than life comic book sheen woven into it.
Lucy Lawless is spot on in a character that she describes as “very Lady MacBeth” that is sexual and smart. “Playing a role naked is new and challenging, but what attracted me to this role is that I just knew this would be a new kind of television,” she admits “I never read the script before I accepted the job. But I knew the way that Rob (Tapert, executive producer and Lawless’ husband) talked about it, and the team that he was putting together, that this was not a project that I could afford to walk away from.” Even the nude scenes could not dissuade her, and why should they? She has a slammin’ body.
Craig Parker, whom we all loved to loathe in Legend of the Seeker and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, is again wonderful to hate and feel sorry for and think looks best really pouty and frustrated.
Spartacus himself, Andy Whitfield, is beautiful. He smoulders under the blood and sand of the arena. How does he feel about stepping into a role made iconic by Kirk Douglas? “Obviously, it’s hard. The last thing an actor wants to do is try to mimic or try and reacreate someone elses’ performance; particularly something as iconic as Spartacus.” How did he overcome that? The thing I took most from it was that he didn’t assume leadership, this guy, he wasn’t saying follow me. He was presented with that leadership by those people who were inspired by him. He modeled his… unwavering dignity on righting a few wrongs. And that was the kind of tone I went for.” He also notes that the storyline varies vastly from the Douglas movie, and so in that way he didn’t have to worry about stepping on those cinematic toes.
The casting is spot on from the gladiators to the slaves in the castle, but most especially is showcased in the talent of one of my favorite “character” actors of all time, John Hannah. “When we landed on John Hannah, it was one of our most brilliant moments,” admitted DeKnight. This character is a more sinister, less loveable character than I have ever seen Hannah play and he is taking it to the hilt. Nobody could have done it better.
So, you may be thinking, “What’s your beef, Moore? Why can’t you just drool on this one and shut up?” Because I have integrity dammit. And if I can’t bitch in review here at Fangirl, I may just explode.
Let’s start with the most obvious problem, the special effects. I understand that this is a highly stylized show. I’ve seen 300 and Rome and liked them well enough. I have an inner manhard in me that goes for all the machismo and blood. However, on my giant flatscreen tv, the image fell, well… flat. What should have been wonderous gore (and there is gore… lots and lots of it…) it failed to stay balanced on that fine line between excess and outright camp. The first scene where Spartacus kicks ass in the arena had cartoon blood spatter that did not fall to the ground but disappeared mid air. I know that sounds picky, but when I have been hearing months of hype over how this pushes everything to the limit, these are the things I’m expecting not to be disappointed on.
While I can very easily accept and even appreciate the vast amounts of green screen in this film, and even vast amounts of blood, they must match each other in stylization, so that instead of thinking “Omg, was that computer generated blood, or cartoon blood” I should be thinking “AWESOME !!! His head CAME OFF”. Sadly, it was the former and not the latter.
Whitfield explains that after working with green screen with Gabriel, he was comfortable enough with it for it to not affect his performance. The hard part was the slow motion, and learning how to hold his face so it looked right in slo-mo. There’s a lot of slo-mo for you manhards out there, but the beefcake mostly evens it out.
Next comes the language/sexuality. DeKnight has said in the same interview that the language and orgies are historical and they are there not to be gratuitous, but to be authentic… and then says that they literally wanted to see how far they could go and get away with. Now we are in ancient Rome, folks. And this is paid cable. I’m not expecting something prudish, or even particularly tasteful. But there are only so many times I can hear the c-word said before I’m annoyed I’m having to hear it. In a british accent. For no particular reason other than to be edgy. I have come to accept that my action movies and shows will probably say “fuck” enough times to make this potty mouthed reviewer come out of the story and say “Really? Who says that THAT much?” I realized that that’s a given. But a highly offensive word not saved for a perfect moment, but thrown out to test the boundaries of acceptability rubs me the wrong way. It doesn’t make me question anything socially pertinent. It makes me question why I’m watching the show.
Meanwhile, the much lauded, very beautiful, and able actor Whitfield, gets to be…. the strong and silent type? Other than a “my name is Kunta Kinte” type moment, he keeps pretty much to himself, and is there with his soulful eyes and custom built chest, and the lamest lines to come out of DeKnights comic book mind. He’s our HERO. Maybe he’ll come out of his shell once the trauma of going from a small village warlord to a captured warlord in the arena is over, he’ll get some good lines.
I get the appeal of sex on the screen. I get that since shows like The Tudors, True Blood, and Rome have paved the way, it’s expected in pay cable shows. But stop shoving plot in quickly between these scenes as if the plot is just set up for porn. “We shall restore our fortunes, Batiatus” should not be the new “I heard your pipes broke, and I was already delivering this pizza…” A Roman orgy, sex scenes… that seem to be more in the name of “They wouldn’t let me do THIS on the Dollhouse” then “this plot point can be moved along or made more interesting by some erotica”.
We’re only a few shows in, so I’m not going to write off Spartacus. Lawless pointed out that this crew worked on Xena back in the day, but has since gone on to work with Lord of the Rings and Avatar. “It’s like we’ve all grown up, and we’re very proud to be working on this and showing what we can do”. I’m hoping that as they get into this series a little deeper that DeKnight highlights the story over the shock value, and that the crew takes a page from graphic novels and finds their own take on the Rome/300 style that is less bad slasher flick style and more stylized gorgeous gore. They are just on the edge of making that happen.