April 14, 2010
As Season 1 ends, 'Spartacus' emerges as a gripping gladiator romp
It's hard to say what's more impressive about the Season 1 finale of "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" (9 p.m. Central Friday, Starz) -- the hour itself, which is an enormously enjoyable roller-coaster ride, or the way it artfully combines everything "Spartacus" does well.
andy whitfield spartacus To give away even a scrap of what happens to the gladiator Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) and his wealthy owners, Batiatus (John Hannah) and Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) would be to ruin the finale's well-designed twists and turns. Suffice to say it left a lasting impression and will no doubt remain one of my favorite TV episodes of the year.
For those who dismissed the show as a sex-obsessed "300" ripoff, think again. "Spartacus" turned out to be so much more than that, especially when it kicked into high gear midway through Season 1. Over the course of 13 hours, and especially in several well-paced recent episodes, this swords-and-togas saga became downright addictive, in part due to its distinctive dialogue, which mixes Shakespearean flourishes with "Sopranos"-esque profanity.
Sure, there are a lot of hot bodies on display (and yes, that's part of the appeal). But in the unsentimental world the show depicts, everyone is a piece of meat. Every person, rich or poor, is scrambling to get ahead or to simply survive, and the viciousness of the gladiator arena is more than matched by Lucretia's machinations in her villa. The way that she ensnared a snobby Roman noblewoman, Ilithia (Viva Bianca) and made Ilithia do her bidding was a thing of soapy deliciousness.
lucy lawless spartacus Let's face it, many of the most worthy dramas on TV are work at times. They're usually worth the effort, mind you, but it's great to have shows that work dramatically yet allow you to enjoy yourself to a perhaps unhealthy degree. Like "True Blood," "Spartacus" is a sexy, sometimes outrageous show that enjoys keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.
But the second half of "Spartacus'" debut season has shown an admirable sense of rigor (which is sometimes missing from the messier "True Blood"). The forward movement of the story has felt inexorable; as Spartacus' rage at his master grew and as Batiatus rose in society, a wonderful sense of foreboding enveloped the proceedings. Head writer Steven S. DeKnight is clearly unafraid to take risks with the characters, which gives most story arcs an enjoyable tension. In Batiatus' villa and ludus (gladiator school), anything can happen, but every development feels earned.
And for all its soapy scheming "Spartacus" rarely strays into camp (except in the gladiator ring; it's hard not to view all that slo-mo spurting blood as comic relief, whether that's the intention or not). One of the pleasant surprises of the seasons was how much the fate of Doctore (the great Peter Mensah) and even Crixus (Manu Bennett) came to matter. Most importantly, as Spartacus, Whitfield displayed an increasingly impressive range and charisma.
batiatus john hannah Yet from the first episode, Hannah has simply owned this show. Batiatus may be a ruthless schemer, but getting ahead in Roman society apparently required the relentlessness of a shark. Around the middle of the season, I feared Batiatus and Lucretia were becoming a little too one-dimensional, but that was a passing concern, and in any case, Hannah and Lawless' skillful portrayal of ambition (and their deadpan way with a joke) always held my interest. These actors are about as well-matched as could be, and their facility with the show's intricate language is one of its many small pleasures.
There were times that "Spartacus'" limitations became apparent: One cramped street was meant to stand in for the entire town of Capua, some of the supporting actors weren't as skilled as the main cast and the violence in the arena was rather repetitive (how many different ways can blood spurt from a body? Not that many). More comic relief: Women in the stands at gladiator matches and in Batiatus' villa were often topless, which, historically accurate or not, struck me as almost amusingly excessive.
doctore It may be worth noting that the last few episodes, which have been light on the sexcapades, have been among the best of the series. I'm not advocating for a "Spartacus" completely devoid of oiled bodies, but the show has confidently begun to rely on its many other strengths.
And the limitations imposed by the budget eventually stopped mattering much, because the show found ways to work around them, and the more intensely the writers delved into this brutal, decadent, ferocious world and its characters, the more interesting "Spartacus" became. The wait for Season 2 of this show is going to seem long indeed.
Speaking of that second season, which Starz has already ordered, production is on hold due to Whitfield's ongoing treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Starz is considering various options regarding how to proceed (for more on that, see this "Spartacus" story) but it's clear that, thanks to Whitfield, the rest of the cast and this show's bold creative team, Starz has the makings of a cult hit on its hands.