The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Television Collision: Starz’ Spartacus — Blood and Sand and Sex

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

ImagePre-emptive note: I am not a Lost-aholic, I don’t follow the episodes from week to week, but rather catch up in one long session at the end of the season. So even though most may have expected me to write about TV’s supposedly “biggest event” this week, I chose to write about another show that was hyped to no good end, Starz’ Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

When you produce a TV show based on a mythological figure as prominent as Spartacus, which has already been the inspiration for an excellent movie (get the DVD, kids!), you face a lot of challenges on your road to success. These would be hard to master even if you were a (cable) network behemoth like HBO, known for quality and commitment. In the hands of a fledgling network like Starz, a subject matter like Spartacus can easily lead to disaster. So let’s take a look at how Starz did.

Since his name makes the program, the first thing you need to worry about for this project is casting the right actor as your lead. After all, he has to carry the whole show. Sadly, even though I appreciate the fresh face, Andy Whitfield is not the guy to carry a show for you. It’s just as well that Starz didn’t go with a well-known actor – there would be too much baggage for the viewer – but most of Whitfield’s acting skills seem to have been stored in his long hair, which was cut off in Episode Two. What a bummer.

ImageHis long looks somewhere left off-camera don’t really convey much, even though they are – and I am guessing – supposed to convey insubordination, anger and pain. Also, Spartacus was supposedly a very intelligent man, cultured almost. As records from those ancient times (ca. 40-71 B.C.) are sketchy at best, this is at least part conjecture. And yet Whitfield can’t pull off the sophistication attributed to the man, who organized the greatest slave rebellion of Ancient Roman history. It takes more than a good fighter to lead thousands of men in battle.

But let’s say we will see this sophistication emerge if we stick it out before the first couple of episodes. So how did Starz do with the rest of the casting? Weeeeeell, let’s say Lucy Lawless is still mighty fine, even though her red dye-job is ridiculous. Her husband is well-cast as a Roman noble man owning slaves and gladiators despite the fact that any of them could take him down without problems if they wanted to. Erin Cummings is definitely beautiful and fascinating enough to justify that a man would die for her love and kill “a thousand men” to get to her and free her, but there is one problem with giving Spartacus this rationale for fighting.

ImageLove wasn’t his reason for fighting. Sure, it may have played into it, but really Spartacus fought because he believed it wasn’t right to keep anyone captive, enslaved and without free will. He was a philosopher of sorts, he even promoted an ancient form of communism in his “army” (they weren’t allowed to plunder or own gold and silver and they had to pay for their weapons, this way the support of other “unfree people” was secured). Sure, call me “nagging”, but there is something to be said for historical accuracy: it makes characters more believable, because that is how they actually behaved.

Which brings me to another point: it’s all good and well to have Spartacus fight for love, it serves the drama so much better, I get that. And I am the last one to complain about sex scenes on TV where you can actually see naked body parts, because there aren’t enough of those, generally speaking, on American TV (not enough to reflect the actual reality of sex in real live, if you get what I mean). But on S:BaS the recipe seems overly simple: have lots of sexy scenes.

Characters are constantly more than half-naked (men and women alike) and while I appreciate male full frontal nudity in the gladiators’ quarters for the realistic aspect of the scene, it would help a lot if my mind didn’t constantly go to “locker room at a gay gym” in the process. Too much of a good thing will ruin it. Put some clothes on those actors and actresses! And while you are at it, make it clothes that actually look anything like the clothes worn back in those times! A shoddy production design can ruin the best of subject matters and on S:BaS it’s pretty damn close to doing just that.

On the note of “locker room at a gay gym”: it is a well-established fact that homosexuality was – at least over long periods of time – perfectly acceptable in Ancient Greece and Rome (until they embraced Christianity, of course!). Male lovers weren’t seen as “life partners”, but they were a valid choice of sex partners. In fact, Spartan warriors were known to “lie with each other” and Alexander the Great and Hephaistos were basically inseparable. (So were Achilles and his cousin Patroklos, btw. Doesn’t that just give some of you the “double-eww”?!) So in theory there is nothing wrong with the gladiators looking like a bunch of gay men hopped up on steroids with their oiled, waxed chests (a hygienic practice gladiators may actually have applied, simply to make blood be more visible on their bodies, be it their own or their opponents blood, but generally antiquity was a hairy time, so I am not quite sure about this) and bulky arms, if only they didn’t talk like the biggest machos in town. Seriously, there are plenty of actors who are muscular and don’t look like meat heads, yet none of them were cast to be a gladiator on Starz’ S:BaS.

Now, let’s get to bashing some of the people behind the program for their blatant plagiarism and uninventiveness. Steven S. DeKnight, creator of the series and writer of a lot of episodes, should know something about good television, since he was involved in both Angel and Dollhouse with TV genius Joss Whedon and also signs his name under a lot of things Smallville (which USED to be clever at some point). And to be fair, the writing isn’t the worst part of S:BaS.

Way worse are the visual “effects” – if you even want to call them that – of the blood spatter, the slow motion and the morphing of scenes, because they are simply a blatant rip-off of 300. I wonder how many royalties Zack Snyder is getting for coming up with the basic concept S:BaS is abusing to no end. But then again, Sam Raimi is involved in S:BaS, the ultimate fan-boy in charge of his own fantasy land, who once had good ideas but now wouldn’t recognize the difference between “homage” and “plagiarism” if Spidey himself explained it to him. The entire first episode of S:BaS I could not stop thinking “This is such a 300 for the poor man!” I even re-watched 300 to make sure my impression was right, and it was. The goodbye scene of Spartacus and his wife is a Xerox copy of the one of Leonidas and his Queen in 300, only in S:BaS it is 300% cheesier.

But even if you look at these special effects as a means to an end, namely to get away with a whole lot of graphic violence, there’s simply too much of it. Of everything. The whole show is sensationalist to no end. Lots of sex, lots of blood, lots of violence, lots of platitudes, perfectly appropriate for the Starz network and its audience, I suppose. Much artistic value there is not.

The worst thing about S:BaS though is that despite all these flaws – and they are considerable flaws – it is still hugely entertaining. Some shows just have that “guilty pleasure vibe” exuding from every pore of their virtual existence and S:BaS is one of those shows. I can’t decide whether the reason is that it is so bad, it’s good again or if it just speaks to the student of Latin and Ancient Greek in me. I just know that I don’t plan on missing a single episode of it. Mission accomplished, Starz!



Recommended Collisions with your Television

(combine at will, all times EST, only new programming listed)


Tuesday, February 2nd
 8 p.m.  Lost (ABC)
 8:30 p.m.  Better Off Ted (ABC)
 9 p.m.  Lost (ABC)
   NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS)
 10 p.m.  Lost (ABC)
   The Good Wife (CBS)
Wednesday, February 3rd
 8 p.m.  Human Target (Fox)
   Mercy (NBC)
 8:30 p.m.  The Middle (ABC)
 9 p.m.  Modern Family (ABC)
   Criminal Minds (CBS)
 9:30 p.m.  Cougar Town (ABC)
 10 p.m.
 Psych (USA)
   Leverage (TNT)
   Nip:Tuck (FX)
   Ugly Betty (ABC)
Thursday, February 4th  
 8 p.m.
 The Deep End (ABC)
   Bones (Fox)
   Vampire Diaries (CW)
   Community (NBC)
 8:30 p.m.  Parks and Recreation (NBC)
 9 p.m.  Fringe (Fox)
   Grey's Anatomy (ABC)
   CSI (CBS)
   The Office (NBC)
   Supernatural (CW)
 9:30 p.m.  30 Rock (NBC)
 10 p.m.  Archer (FX)
   Project Runway (Lifetime)
   Burn Notice (USA)
   Private Practice (ABC)
   The Mentalist (CBS)
Friday, February 5th
 8 p.m.  Ghost Whisperer (CBS)
   Smallville (CW)
 9 p.m.
 Medium (CBS)
 10 p.m.
   Spartacus: Blood and Sand (Starz)
Saturday, February 6th
Sunday, February 7th
Monday, February 8th
 8 p.m.
 How I Met Your Mother (CBS)
   House (Fox)
   Chuck (NBC)
 8:30 p.m.  Accidentally on Purpose (CBS)
 9 p.m.
 Two and a Half Men (CBS)
   24 (Fox)
   Heroes (NBC)
   Fringe (Fox)
   Life Unexpected (CW)
 9:30 p.m.  The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
 10 p.m.  Damages (FX)
   CSI:Miami (CBS)