Thursday, August 18, 2011

T.V. Review "Spartacus: Blood and Sand - Season One" by David Pretty

Greetings, Gladiators and Gladiettes!

Y'know, amongst all the other movie, concert and book reviews I'm already doing I really didn't envision penning a whole lotta  T.V. reviews.  But I guess all it takes for me to eat crow on that claim was the right program.  Be warned: the pilot episode of Spartacus: Blood and Sand lulls your expectations into a false sense of superiority and then jams a gladius right between it's eyes.  And then it proceeds to tea-bag the corpse.

Exhibit "A"...the trailer for the show's premiere:

Of course this is a fresh, modern take on the age-old yarn about the legendary gladiator who threw off the shackles of his degenerate oppressors to lead a large-scale slave rebellion.  Everyone's probably already familiar with the classic Stanley Kubrick film starring Kirk Douglas (or at least they should be).  Back in 1960, Kubrick was forced to jettison most of the gory battle footage he shot for the film.  This just blows me away since you couldn't conceive of similar restrictions being placed on Spartcus: Blood and Sand.  Violence is this show's bread and butter.

Kubrick also tried to sneak some subversive sexual content into the film courtesy of a scene in which Laurence Olivier's Roman General character Crassus macks on his slave Antoninus, played by Tony Curtis. Even though it's only subtext in the dialogue ("Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral?") the scene still got cut out.   Fast forward fifty years and the network that produces Spartcus: Blood and Sand is sending notes to the show-runners telling them to put in more male nudity.  My, how times have changed.      

So, I just have to ask, exactly when did Homer Simpson become a T.V executive?

Beautiful thing

This version is produced under the auspices of Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi, certainly no wilting flowers when it comes to edgy adult content.  After all, its these two characters who originally gave us the Evil Dead films. Naturally, I expected Spartcus: Blood and Sand to be reasonably splatter-riffic, but not many of Raimi's previous film's contained a lot of nudity.  In other words, thus far we've been spared the sight of Bruce Campbell's alternate boomstick.

Spartcus: Blood and Sand tells the story of a Thracian citizen who gets coerced into joining a Roman Auxiliary army to defend his homeland against barbarian invaders.  When our hero makes the mistake of upstaging the General Claudius Glaber, the Romans leave the Thracians high and dry by diverting their main armies to more glorious pursuits.  Our protagonist is betrayed, captured, and then sold off as human chattel.

He's subsequently purchased by Quintus Lentulus Batiatus, who's inherited a rundown gladiator training academy.  Now re-named after the fierce Thracian King of legend, Spartacus is forced to do battle in the arena.  Channeling his rage over being separated from his beloved wife Sura, our hero excels in one bloody spectacle after another.  In order to ensure his new champion's total complicity, Quintus pledges to funnel all of the gladiator's winnings into an effort to track down his missing wife.  Naturally, the mind reels when you consider the opportunities for duplicity here.

I have to say that the pilot really failed to impress me. It's rife with badly-rendered, hyper-stylized violence pilfered from the movie 300, with a bunch of gratuitous nudity thrown in.   But then something amazing happened.  I watched episode two.  Then I watched episode three.  And then I found myself watching two or three episodes per sitting until I ran out and then I was sad.

Did the producers just cram as much sensationalistic content into the pilot as possible to hook viewers?  Well, it had the opposite effect on me and it's a minor miracle that I stuck with it.

But I'm sure glad I did.  Over the course of the next three or four episodes, the characters slowly begin to reveal themselves in increasingly sophisticated ways.  Sure, we immediately cheer for Spartacus right away because we're sympathetic to his plight, but then the writers take a gamble and show us that he's not perfect.   His mindless quest for revenge causes collateral damage.  He's overconfident and sometimes a bit arrogant.  And he's also a bit of an asshole, especially concerning "yesterday's news" rival gladiator Crixus.  Bless the writers for treating the audience like mature adults who are capable of making our own determination about how we view certain characters.

In order to strike the perfect balance between rage, smarm, cunning and charisma the producers needed a talented actor for the title role.  They struck pay-dirt when they found Welsh actor Andy Whitfield.  It's just a bloody shame that he fell ill at the end of the first season and his future participation in the show is in serious doubt.  Fans can only hope that new actor Liam McIntyre has just a fraction of Whitfield's talent.  His presence will be sorely missed.

Speaking of Crixus, his character never ceases to amaze.  When we first meet him he comes across as the typical meat-headed, honor-bound, brainwashed oaf who's irrational hatred for Spartacus springs from his own insecurities.  But after we see him get used and discarded by Lucretia, the wife of Batiatus, all the while secretly pining over the stunning slave girl Naevia (Lesley-Ann Brandt), we feel guilty about viewing him only as a stereotype.  That's a major feather in the cap of the writers.

Much of the character's appeal can be attributed to actor Manu Bennett, who inhabits this role seamlessly. Turns out Bennett studied classical ballet (!) prior to being bit by the acting bug.  This combination might seem a bit odd at first, but his background in dance serves him well in the arena sequences.  In combat, his moves are fluid, vicious and completely convincing.

Lucretia, along with her husband Quintus, form the Lady and Lord MacBeth of the piece.  Once again, the writers do a great job generating sympathy for these two.  After all, it's easy for us to relate to people who are merely trying to operate a business, improve their lot in life and just make ends meet.  However, as their behavior become more and more Machiavellian, we're eventually turned off by their inability to be content with merely prospering.  Both Lucy Lawless and John Hannah are sheer genius in their respective roles.  It's a credit to both actors that we continue to silently plead with them to do the right thing, long after their dark paths become apparent.

Also, if Peter Mensah (who stars as the gladiator trainer Doctore) didn't exist the show runners would have had to have assembled him in some sort of genetic factory.  As a retired champion gladiator, source of wisdom and uncompromising disciplinarian, Doctore is someone you don't wanna trifle with.  Mensah plays the part with such authority and conviction, you can easily see how he was able to survive the worst perils of the arena to earn his reprieve.  Due to his fearsome countenance, he rarely needs to throw down, but when he does it's awe inspiring.

Also worth mentioning is Jai Courtney as Varro, the one and only true ally to our hero.  His casting is inspired; with his neo-classical cherub face and curly blonde hair set atop the body of a Roman bouncer Courtney looks like he was captured during a time machine trip.  He's essentially imprisoned at the ludus, trying to work of his prodigious gambling debts to Quintus.  Like Spartacus, he fights for a chance to reunite with his beloved wife but when it's revealed that she's been forced into some unsavory business in order to survive, Varro begins a downward spiral that's difficult to watch.   Jai Courtney does a fine job with the range of emotions he's asked to convey whether it be hope, envy, chagrin, encouragement, rage or resignation.    

I also have to give praise to all of the actors for being brave enough to jettison any shred of self-consciousness.  Quite often they're asked to appear completely disrobed on screen or indulge in some pretty risque sequences.  I imagine it would be tough to be completely buck nekkid with a veritable army of cast and crew standing around eating sammiches.  In additional to being historically honest, the copious nudity certainly offers up some tremendous eye candy for both male and female viewers.  I, for one, would like to thank the show's producers for giving me the opportunity to finally see Xena's chakrams.  A-hem.

To reward their bravery, the  actors are fortunate enough to have a ton of "A"-list material to work from.  The plotting gets better and better and story threads dropped earlier in the season pay off in the end.  The ending is particularly nasty, like Titus Andronicus meets Apocalypse Now.  Speaking of Shakespeare, this is one of the very few examples that I can think of where the nigh-Shakespearean dialogue actually works.  I love that Steven S. DeKnight and his team of scribes went through the bother of approximating how ancient Romans used to speak, often using one-word sentiments like "Apologies" versus saying "I'm sorry."

Indeed, the dialogue is alive with double entendres, bawdy humor and alliteration.  I wonder if it was as much  fun for actor John Hammond to say: "That shit fuck!  Beckons me to the city only to spurn me like a thin wasted whore!  Once again the gods spread the cheeks and ram cock in fucking ass!" as it is for the audience to hear it  As salty as the dialogue can be, there's also plenty of wit and truisms, such as when Spartacus declares: "It is a distance to travel from a woman's mouth to a man's ears."          

I'm also happy to report that as the series continues to progress, the digital effects get better and better.  One spectacular highlight features a titanic battle with Spartacus and Crixus allied against the monstrous and nigh-invulnerable Theoceles.  Also memorable is a horrible detour into The Pit, a nasty and vile bloodsport den that makes the arena look like a kids soccer game.  Scenes like this even managed to make this veteran gorehound's stomach churn.

To me, shows like Spartacus: Blood and Sand really prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that cable television now consistently trumps cinema as the superior and intelligent creative medium.  For one, these programs don't have the draconian restraints of the MPAA breathing down their necks.  That alone is enough to ensure that the writers aren't bound to directives antiquated enough to make the Comics Code Authority look contemporary.

So, if your interested in a television series that does right what shlock crap like Gladiator failed to do, look no further.  Spartacus: Blood and Sand takes advantage of it's additional freedoms to deliver a show that's appropriately bloody, sexually mature and positively rich with memorable dialogue, engaging plot twists and top-notch performances.

Honestly, it's probably not as good as the review I'm about to give but since I'm hard press to recall the last time I was so consistently and pleasantly surprised by a T.V. show, I'm just gonna gush about it like an arterial spray...

  Tilt: up.

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