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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Blood and Sex

As established very early in the life of this blog, I have something of a fondness for the fairer sex; I can't help it, and I long ago stopped trying to hide it. For the most part though, this fondness manifests as a slightly pathetic childlike crush, which I feel is so innocent, if not mockable, as to not require any apology. The truth is, while I joke about my 'pervy' tendencies a lot, when it comes to nudity, or full on sexual activity in my viewing, I barely notice it, unless it's gratuitous, and then it gets more of an annoyed, disapproving 'tut' than any kind of titillated response.

Which is why I tutted a fair bit at the opening episodes of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, but by the end of the season, I was barely aware of the (copious amounts of) flesh on show.

I came to Spartacus, as I did Edge of Darkness, as a stopgap while I was waiting to resume my viewing of Supernatural. In all honesty I didn't expect it to be anything particularly special, partly because it had aired in the UK on a channel not known for importing the most high brow of shows, and partly because I had seen a segment on You Have Been Watching which had made it seem, to be blunt, like blatant homo erotic soft porn. Not that there's anything wrong with soft porn aimed at the homosexual male, but it's not what I look for in a serious drama. Of course, as you watch the beginnings of the series it soon becomes apparent the show is very much a 'something for everyone' provider of naughtiness. Men and women both, wandering around with their bits out, indulging in some quite shocking sexual (hetero and homo; in fact the terms are somewhat redundant) shenanigans, make up a large proportion of the screen time. It all seems a little bit 'try hard' at times, as though the writers and directors were doing it as a sop to Starz (or were indulging the novelty value of being allowed to do it, by said network).

It's sad really, because there really are some very good looking people in the cast, and while I can't speak for the men; both because of my own sexual preferences and because their costumes are restricted to togas for the nobles and almost nothing for the Gladiators; the women were, to my mind, far better served by the costumes than by any amount of nudity; Viva Bianca especially looks stunning in some of the gowns she sports. Maybe that's just me being a prude, I don't know.

Lets leave behind the sex and nudity though, and talk about more dignified matters; namely, violence. Many moons ago I was talking to a gentleman of my acquaintance who doesn't watch a lot of television, and he was bemoaning the fact that he had stumbled across an episode of 'some kind of historical thing, and this bloke was in an arena and he chopped this other blokes head off with a shield; it was disgusting; how was that allowed on the telly?' He was talking, of course, about Rome, and I mocked him hugely for his attitudes, but I was reminded of that incident, and was slightly more sympathetic to his views, when watching Spartacus.

I have no doubt that the violence of the day; be it in the war of the first episode or the gladiatorial combat we see subsequently; was every bit as brutal and bloody as we see here, but the relish with which it is depicted leaves one once again wondering whether the makers may have been better off heeding the sage words of Jeff Goldblum, in that movie about dinosaurs (I forget the name but you've probably seen it; it was a modest hit). Now, I'm far from a gorehound and I don't believe there are many stories, especially good stories, that need it, but at the same time I'm willing to tolerate it to get at a good story; the early Saw movies being good examples; but here the story was sadly lacking, leaving me with the undeniable feeling that the gore was being used to mask this fact.

The biggest problem with the gore, at least to my mind, was the oceans of CG claret that would flood the screen at times. I'm not one of those so ignorant of film making conventions as to assume it was meant as a literal depiction of the amount of blood spilled (and was surprised to learn that some did assume this); I knew it to be a stylisation, used for effect to emphasise the violence; I just didn't think it was a particularly good attempt. The CG looked cheap (rightly or wrongly), and the effect tacky, so all in all a bit of a failure. Luckily as the series progressed this effect was used more sparingly, although it does recur throughout. In the commentary tracks on the DVD the producers have cited this effect as an attempt at 'The Graphic Novel' look. They mention 300 as an influence and since I've neither seen the movie nor read the book upon which it's based it's possible I'm not the best judge of how successful they may or may not have been. That said though, even if they've got it bang on, they haven't really based it on 'The' graphic novel style, they're basing it on 'A' graphic novel style. A distinction worth mentioning I think.

And so to the story. Because despite the impression I may have given up until now, the show does have one. Not just a story, but a tightly plotted, intricately crafted story, with an awful lot of twists and turns, some constantly shifting loyalties and a number of elements carried through from the pilot that pay off in the finale. A good, honest, proper serial; albeit one swamped by sex and violence.

We follow, as you might expect from a show called Spartacus, a man called Spartacus (Andy Whitfield). Or rather, a man who has his name stripped from him and is renamed Spartacus by his new masters. The pilot finds him living life as a loving husband and proud warrior, and follows him as he loses everything and ends up as a slave, bound for the arena, before the series proper charts his rise in popularity with the spectators, rise in privilege within his masters house, and rise in respect amongst his fellow gladiators.

There's more to it than that though. The show is as much about the people surrounding Spartacus as it is the man himself. The House of Batiatus is a hotbed of political intrigue, with Batiatus (John Hannah, playing one of the most entertaining sociopaths you'll ever see) and his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless, who isn't far behind in the scenery chewing lunacy) leading the way, although clerk (and former gladiator) Ashur could give them a run for their money.

Ashur (Nick Tarabay) is a bit of a favourite character of mine on the show; even though we know from very nearly the outset that he's a conniving little prick, you can't help but feel for him as his injury heals and he thinks he's about to re-enter the arena, before his dreams of glory are stripped from him by Batiatus, who thinks he's more useful as a back room man. All the poor guy wants to do is get his sword back, but he's denied at the last minute, and he's crushed. Of course, the other gladiators see his new position as being unworthy, and he is mocked, so his willing and sometimes even gleeful participation in fucking with their lives (and orchestrating their deaths) is perhaps understandable.

Anyway, Batiatus promises Spartacus that he'll reunite him with his wife if he fights well and remains loyal. Spartacus agrees and all goes well, even past the point where his wife (Sura, played by Erin Cummings) is killed. The way he figures it, Batiatus tried his best and it's not his fault she's dead. Ah, Sparty, how naive you are. There's a lot of that going on, with a number of seemingly permanent cast members, like Sura, getting killed off unexpectedly, and in very nasty ways, as the series progresses.

Spartacus' best friend Varro, for instance, who volunteered to become a gladiator to pay off his gambling debts, is dispatched in a tearjerking (read: emotionally manipulative) scene, which is spoiled only by the antagonist being played by a truly truly awful actor. Console yourselves though, because that guy gets what's coming to him as well. In fact, by the end of the run, I defy anyone to predict who is or isn't coming out of any given episode alive. And by this point, we care, which was far from the case early on; had you told me after 2 or even 3 episodes that I'd give a toss for any of the characters on this show, caricatures that they were, I'd have laughed in your face but by the home straight every death is a gutpunch (so the finale, bloodbath that it is, is very uncomfortable viewing, albeit in the right way).

Creator Steven S DeKnight came up in the Joss Whedon camp, so it's hardly surprising that the characters engender strong emotions in the viewer; what's surprising is that it took so long. DeKnight is responsible for the incredibly poor early episodes here, so there really is no excuse. He pulls it out of the hat though, and delivers a truly shocking finale, that opens up some very intriguing new avenues for the surviving characters going into S2.

Ah yes, season 2. The illness of leading man Andy Whitfield led to a postponement of S2, with a prequel mini-series, that didn't require his presence, going into production to maintain the brand, which if you want to look on the bright side of a very dark situation at least allows for a little more John Hannah, since we're unlikely to see him going forward. Sadly though, as I'm sure most people know, shortly after S2 did finally go into production, Whitfields illness returned and took his life. When we do see the second season, this time called 'Vengeance', it shall be with a new face in the lead role.

That's a ways in the future though; more so for me than for most, as I predict I shall remain a year or so behind with this show all the way (I have yet to watch the mini series). Why? Well, because when you are watching on DVD, waiting a while means the price drops, 'tis as simple as that. I picked up S1 when the mini came out, and I'll likely pick up the mini when S2 comes out. I'm not made of money, you know.

I have no idea what I'll be waffling about next week, but I'm sure it'll be just as insightful, well researched and scholarly as this piece was. So, you know, probably best to read Ally Ross instead. (Joke. Please don't read Ally Ross.)


  1. Surprisingly, one of my favorite shows! A friend hated it and gave me the Blu Ray set - so I was already biased against it. The first episode was so terrible that I was ready to pass the set on to some other unsuspecting fool, but I decided to give it a go for a few more episodes - and found myself drawn in as series improved! Gods of the Arena was okay, if a bit rushed down the stretch, but I'm looking forward to Season 2.

  2. Yeah, I think anyone who watches the first couple of eps is going to have a hard time believing it's worth their time, which is a shame, cos as successful as it is, it could probably be even bigger.

    Far from a classic, but definitely a decent show, and I'm looking forward to more, when I get round to it. Delayed gratification, even if it's forced, can be a good thing.