While it would be impossible to watch the new Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand without recalling films like Gladiator and 300, this new sword and sandal action-drama has a pedigree of its own bestowed by creators Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert. This is the pair who made Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess into genre hits long before Ridley Scott’s epic won Best Picture. Gone is the camp of those series and in its place is the kind of gore, risqué language and graphic sex that is rare even on premium cable.
Millennia after his death, the story of Spartacus has become popular legend. With the truth lost to time and countless retellings, Spartacus: Blood and Sand (in the episodes screened for critics) focuses on his origins as a free-man warrior separated from his beloved wife and forced to become a gladiator slave in ancient Rome. British-born Australian Andy Whitfield, who has a passing resemblance to Russell Crowe, is Spartacus, a man who must temper his pride and anger to survive at a gladiator stable packed with capable (and well-sculpted/oiled) veteran fighters. Between the training and the beatings, the drama of the series comes from Spartacus’ need to negotiate a practically lethal version of office politics with his fellow slaves, learn from veteran gladiator turned trainer Doctore (Peter Mensah, Tears of the Sun) and placate his new master Batiatus (veteran character actor John Hannah, The Mummy film series). Outside of his personal drama, Spartacus becomes a pawn in the financial and political struggles of his owners, including a daring Lucy Lawless as Batiatus’ wife Lucretia. The pair is portrayed akin to small business people, whose family trade happens to be ending human lives for entertainment purposes, trying to make ends meet, holding off rivals and attracting patrons.
More than once per episode in the first three, the drama takes a back seat to the action, mainly one-on-one fights in the arena, which use plenty of computer generated imaging (CGI) to spray blood, sever limbs, cut off heads and worse in otherwise stock fight choreography. On occasion CGI effects are used to illustrate a character’s emotions by flashing colors or images in the background. Blood and Sand also takes full advantage of their premium channel placement beyond physical brutality by utilizing copious foul language (the dialogue is like Deadwood without the iambic pentameter) and completely frank cross-gender nudity and sex, in keeping with the popular imagination of the era. Visually, the show owes a lot to the CGI groundwork laid by 300, with its washed out colors, slow-mo to sped-up action and green screen environments, particularly in the early going before the series settles into its stock locations.
Overall, the show generates suspense around what will trigger the inevitable rebellion that’s at the heart of the Spartacus legend. This gives the drama a known ‘destiny’ that shows like Heroes and Lost lack, offsetting some of the gladiator stable chest thumping that makes the show occasionally look like a Junior High melodrama set in a school that’s just one giant locker room. The first thirteen episode season starts on January 22, 2010 on Starz.