Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Starz's original series push into the sandals and swords genre, spills heavily on the gut and what's anatomically below and above it.
More 300 and Caligula than Gladiator, Rome and Xena: Warrior Princess, the new series smacks of Thracian titillation, chained loosely to the Roman slave legend.
Agreeing to help defend Rome and his village against an advancing enemy, the man who will become this series' Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) is betrayed by Legatus Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker), the commander of the legion. Electing to disobey an order and taking out a soldier with a well-aimed spear, Spartacus is later apprehended by "Rome's shadow," separated from his wife Sura (Erin Cummings) and sold into slavery as a gladiator at the Ludus, owned by Batiatus (John Hannah). Sparctacus' reason for living is to see see Sura again, but he must win his new master, who is hurting financially, enough coin to underwrite the reunion.
During the first four episodes, Spartacus attempts to come to grips with his new station in life, the personalities and pecking order of gladiators at the Ludus, the severity of training under Doctore (Peter Mensah, who appeared briefly in 300) and the physical beatings he can absorb and administer.
Lucy Lawless, the star of Xena: Warrior Princess herself, plays Lucretia, Batiatus' scheming and lustful wife. She views Spartacus as a liability and would prefer to see her husband cut their financial losses on the man, whose purchase price was inflated by his improbable slaughter of four adversaries the first time he stepped into the ring. In the presence of Batiatus, Lucretia often dons a red wig, but when summoning top gladiator Crixus (Manu Bennett) to extend his "virtues outside the arena," pasties (or not) are more her fashion. Crixus, though, prefers Naevia (Lesley-Ann Brandt), Lucretia's body slave, and beating on Spartacus.
Theirs and other engagements result in plenty of slow-motion, CGI fight scenes, where iron meets flesh and blood squirts, oozes and drips, but mostly splatters. As was the case in 300, it's all very highly stylized and, after the first four hours, largely numbing.
The series is also graphic in that there's male and female full frontal nudity, plus plentiful depictions of varied homosexual and heterosexual acts. And although the series takes place in Capua, it might as well have been the San Fernando Valley, as ancient world fluffers are on hand to ready their masters.
The gratuitous sex also extends to arena crowd scenes, where bloodthirsty yells are accompanied by women falling out of their tunics, or being groped by plebes. Just for good measure, the fourth episode, entitled "The Pits," features nude women chained amidst the crowd gawking at the human cockfights, and a female slave, who walks in and out of view, sans forearm, but sporting a male appendage.
In short, if you're squeamish about blood and guts and/or exposed and engorged body parts, Starz's take on the Spartacus tale is not going to work for you.
Light on the politics of its times, this visual stew of (class) action, carnal knowledge, comic elements (poetic,stilted dialogue is often followed by vulgarities in an odd form of foreplay) and incarcerated intrigue, though, is certainly not without its amusements. As another famous Roman combatant, Russell Crowe's General Maximus Decimus Meridius, asked in Gladiator: "Are you not entertained?"
Starz is betting enough will be, having already ordered a sophomore season of the series.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand debuts Friday, Jan. 22 at 10 p.m. (ET/PT) on Starz.
Read Mary McNamara's take here.
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