Spartacus –Blood and Sand tries to be a lot of things: Epic, violent, edgy, dramatic, sexy, and exciting. And, while it does meet some of those goals the one thing it miserably fails at is actually being a show that is currently worth watching.
Spartacus comes to your cable provided homes via the people at the Starz Network, who you might remember as the people that gave us their other, “original” series “Crash;” a program that was loosely based on the fantastic Academy Award winning film of the same name. In fact, the show was so loosely based that it actually featured none of the same production team, actors, or ideas that made the movie good.
It’s quite a surprise, knowing this, that the same people – who defiled a great movie’s namesake and used it to drive off and over the Unoriginal-Idea Cliff and into the Forgettable TV Abyss – have surfaced once again; only this time to serve us a Friday night helping of carbon-copied, gladiator action.
The show, which is doing a 13 week run that ends April 16th, is like watching a film school director take all of the good and awesome things out of movies like 300 and Gladiator and then smash them together until all of the things that made those movies great have been fractured and blown away right before your angry, bleeding eyes.
I’m not exaggerating, too much, I feel. After all, the show takes words like “freedom,” “slavery,” “justice,” “eternity,” “honor” and a dozen or so other clichéd words we’ve heard a billion times in other epic films; and instead of coming up with new and unique ways to fit those ideas and words into the plot and dialogue, the show’s producers just chuck them around like teenage boys throwing ninja stars at a bedroom wall – a wall that just happens to be covered with movie posters from Ridley Scott films. And so, whatever movie poster the producer’s shuriken hits is then copied, poorly, on screen, and the word written on the throwing star is then uttered by the supporting cast at least 12,000 times over the next 50 minutes.
Yes, this review has been a little harsh so far, but that’s only because I feel like it could be a fantastic show…if it only would do a few things differently – like try to do its own thing, for starters. Don’t get me wrong, for as many things that I don’t like about Spartacus there are an almost equal number of things that I actually do enjoy. The show has undeniable potential, and if I didn’t think so I wouldn’t even bother writing about it (see: my missing review of The Jersey Shore).
One of the things I see as a great benefit to the show is the acting talent that fills it to the brim. I mean, you have Lucy Lawless, aka Xena – Warrior freaking Princess on board, who actually can act quite well, surprisingly enough; and the show features her in a role that is just begging to be explored by her talent and a competent set of writers. As of yet, though, her character has been restrained by poorly written scripts as well as poorly paced episodes, and Xena has been kept under the proverbial porch without getting the chance to let out her warrior scream.
For instance, in the most recent episodes she has shown the viewers just how devious and manipulative her character, Lucretia, can be; but every time the episode starts to build up her momentum it cuts to a scene where she is used just for window dressing during, yet another, Roman party that her and her husband are hosting.
(On that note: Starz. Listen to me. I don’t want to see Roman people having parties anymore. You’re done. That’s enough.)
Another one of the actors on the show who has real promise is Andy Whitfield, who plays the title role of Spartacus – though in this incarnation Spartacus is not his real name, but instead the name given to him by a Roman senator after his first win as a gladiator. Every time the show gives Whitfield a serious bit of dialogue to chew on – a short monologue, for example, that undeniably wets his appetites for revenge just as much as our own – we, the viewers, can see the fire, compassion, and strength just behind his eyes. No, it’s not CGI (more on that below), and it’s not a camera trick…the guy can just really act. He is one of the only reasons I would even think about recommending this show to anyone, and I have a strong feeling that he’s going to be a huge star one day.
But, just like they do to Lucy “Xena” Lawless, the producers and writers seem to shorten all the scenes that would actually develop his character into one we could really care about, be interested in and sympathize with. Instead, every fifteen minutes or so, Starz execs order Spartacus’ character to stop being interesting, refuse to let Whitfield act his way out of a CGI coliseum nightmare, and then proceed with doing something completely stupid with their show. Like, most recently, the script called for Spartacus to get all dolled up (complete with a charade mask and covered head to foot in gold-colored paint), and then, to top it all off, they have him perform strange, uncomfortable-to-watch sex with a masked woman. For three straight minutes. Really, Starz?
Stanley Kubrick might have loved to watch it, (he did direct the original Spartacus, after all), but personally, I became so frustrated just watching that particular episode, because once again I was forced by the show to just sit back and watch naked human bodies collide for no reason. In slow motion, nonetheless. If the execs want to throw in sex that’s fine by me (honestly); but how about instead of devoting so much time to saying and filming the “F word” every four seconds you let us viewers watch characters interact with one other in ways that would make us actually care if their bodies were grinding pelvises.
Which brings us to the sex element of the show. Yes, I’m sure some of you just got really excited when I mentioned the show contains sexual material, as well as almost endless nudity; and even I’ll admit that I got excited the first time I saw the Starz “AC, N, V, L” content rating pop up on my TV; however, by the end of episode four I was honestly sick of seeing anything sexual in nature on the show.
Now, I have to quickly say, in a very gentle manner, that I am not a prude in any way, shape or form. I enjoy on screen sex and nudity as much as the next guy in my demographic will admit (when not around females or family members); but Spartacus just takes it to a level where I find myself saying, repeatedly, “why?!”
In any given episode there will be at least four sex scenes, each one taking up about 2-5 minutes of screen time; on top of numerous female frontal nudity shots; then some male frontal nudity shots; then some see-through female garments; then some male see-through garments (what, why?!); and then, as I mentioned above, some strange puppet-master-like sex scene intended to shock and awe.
The first episode, for example, featured Xena, and her husband, Batiatus, played by The Mummy’s funnyman John Hannah, getting “warmed up” and “stimulated” by their slaves before ditching their individual slave “helpers” and consummating their marriage for the 4,405th time that hour (I’m guessing). Is it true that Roman’s did things like that, and is the show just trying to be edgy, while also historically accurate? I don’t know. I haven’t had the courage to Google it yet; but I do know that if you want more than just sexually frustrated males turning into your show you’re going to have to tone the nudity and sex thing down just a little bit. Honestly, right now Starz producers have the sex on Spartacus turned up to eleven. And, while I personally don’t care about the adult content, I do care if it starts taking away from the actual content.
This brings me to the next issue I have with the show which is the violence – specifically the gore and blood. Once again, I have to assure you that I love both violence and gore in my movies and TV shows. Planet Terror, for example is one of my favorite films of the last three years, and it had some amazingly graphic violence and gore – stuff that was just so over the top you couldn’t believe they got away with it. But, what Planet Terror and other movies like it have done is establish that the violence is meant to be over the top, tongue in cheek and ultimately just for laughs. Even the film 300, from which Spartacus – Blood and Sand “borrows” its cinematography style and largely CGI’d set designs, got away with excessive blood and gore because it was based on a comic book and the director, Zack Snyder, treated the film as such.
Blood and Sand, however, throws in all of this CGI blood, sex and violence while trying to keep a straight face and remain a “serious” drama. Maybe that’s not what the producers and creator initially wanted, but a serious drama is what they now have. They’ve already thrown in too many plot twists, backstabbings, and under-the-table deals to make the show anything but a serious, hour-long gore fest.
The violence, in case you’re confused, is not like the gore or guts seen in the realistic opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, but instead the gore in Spartacus appears cartoon-ish and is very much out of place. It’s violence you’d expect to see in a comic book or anime, but without any of the fun and wit those two mediums are notorious for. Spartacus just has an over the top, ludicrous amount of blood and flying limbs (and male genitalia in one episode), and it doesn’t work well for the serious tone the producers have chosen to give the show as a whole.
In regard to the action scenes overall, every time there is any violence or fighting the editors cut to slow motion sequences at least twelve or fifteen times. I guess they do it so we don’t have to use our TiVo sets to rewind and figure out that two guys in a gladiator themed show are actually fighting for once. But the slow motion gets so ridiculous at times that the action scenes actually become some of the most boring scenes in a whole episode. I’m sorry, Starz, but there is nothing exciting about a man jumping at another man for five minutes. Speed it up – heck, borrow from Gladiator if you have to – but do something to make the fight scenes fun and make your audience get on the edge-of-their-seats.
Overall, my main complaint is that the show just doesn’t know where it wants to go or what it wants to be. It has already been renewed for a second season (in fact, it was renewed before the pilot even first hit the air), and it’s my hope that the people over there at Starz will try to fix this bleeding program before it’s lost into the files of time with the likes of “Every Good Show Fox Has Ever Canceled.”
It really does have some promise, and it’s my hope that the execs can figure out a good way to stay “edgy” and “adult” while still allowing for some other demographics to not immediately get turned off by the sex and violence- at least before they even have a chance to discover the characters and great acting abilities of Lucy “Xena” Lawless and Andy Whitfield.
Spartacus, the actual person and legend from Roman myth, was a gladiator that led a rebellion that stood up to the mighty Roman armies, and it’s that kind of bad-assery that I want to see conveyed on a week by week basis on my TV set. I don’t want to see yet another, pointless gladiator fight (Tip: We already know the outcome…it’s a TV show with the lead character’s name in the freaking title, remember?); or have to sit through watching another Roman nobility party (Starz, seriously. Don’t. That’s enough.); or have to watch pointless sex scenes that, while admittedly hot, don’t progress or add to the overall story in any way.
What I want to see in season 2 are the producers actually using the acting and writing talent that’s available out there and wield those tools to push the show into a realm of good TV that is comparable to dramas on HBO and Showtime. Spartacus – Blood and Sand could become one of the better shows on television – it really could; but for right now I’d warn anyone to be careful about choosing to watch it if they’re in the mood for finding something good on TV. In my opinion, the show is currently too much of a work in progress, and it needs a lot of polish before it’s ready for my recommendation.
You can check out some of the episodes at Starz.com, and they show reruns all. the. freaking. time. on Starz’ cornucopia of cable channels. Spartacus airs new episodes every Friday at 10pm ET/PT and ends April 16th until season 2.
Comments? Opinions? Leave them below, guys and gals!