Spartacus: Blood and Sand is the bloodiest, most lurid show ever created for television. The sheer amount of nudity and violence in this sword n’ sandals epic makes Game of Thrones look like a particularly-reserved episode of The Good Life.
Watch any moment in the show and you’d think that series creator Steven S. DeKnight saw 300 and thought “Let’s remake this, only with everything turned up to 11”. After all, it has the same slow-motion action aesthetic as Zack Snyder’s film and they share a star in the form of Peter Mensah (he’s the guy who says “This is madness!” before being kicked into a well by Gerard Butler).
But as totally over-the-top as it is, Spartacus is also one of the most compelling pieces of television we’ve seen in years.
If you’ve seen the 1960 film with Kirk Douglas –or even Gladiator with Russell Crowe— you’ll find the show’s set-up quite familiar. In the era of the Roman Republic, a Thracian warrior is betrayed by a wicked General who condemns him to death. Purchased by a Roman lannister, he is renamed Spartacus and forced to become a gladiator: a slave that fights for the amusement of the public and the glory of his masters.
As keen fans of classical history will know, Spartacus is destined to lead a slave uprising. But before he can do that, he must learn to become the greatest gladiator in all of Rome.
As lurid and uber-macho as it seems, it’s also a well-plotted melodrama depicting a nest of vipers that’s not a million miles away from serious programmes like House of Cards and I, Claudius. Playing Batiatus and Lucretia, the owners of the ludus where Spartacus is indentured, veteran actors John Hannah and Lucy Lawless (Xena: Warrior Princess) are on top form. While the gladiators are outside training and fighting, the pair of them are upstairs plotting acts of betrayal and setting up devious political power-plays. Slimy and despicable as they are, their scene-chewing exchanges are a real joy to watch.
Executive produced by Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, the team that brought you Xena, the show is produced in New Zealand with a largely antipodean cast. Most films set in ancient Rome would have its actor speak in a faux-British manner, but the stars of Spartacus have wisely been allowed to speak the dialogue in their native accents.
And boy, what dialogue it is! How do we describe the words that come out of their mouths?
While the upper-class Romans speak in thinly-veiled barbs like a platoon of Dowager Countesses from Downton Abbey, the gladiators’ dialogue sounds like pared-down Shakespearean dialogue rewritten by the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. The scripts are so unrelentingly profane and genuinely funny that we found ourselves occasionally cursing “Jupiter’s a**hole” around the office. (The HR department did not approve)
All the external backgrounds are obviously computer-generated and the virtual bloodshed goes way beyond the point of being ludicrous, but the fight scenes are always immaculately executed (pun partially intended). The choreographers and directors constantly find new and inventive ways to stage compelling sword fights. The lizard parts of our brains couldn’t help but thrill every time Spartacus’ blade cut through an opponent in a novel way. We really don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this show has the best action sequences of any television show.
And of course there’s the sex-factor.
Game of Thrones has shown us that there is a place for gratuitous nudity in mainstream television. Well, let us tell you: Blood and Sand blows Thrones out of the water when it comes to frank depictions of sex. The Romans are shown as treating their slaves not only like fighting animals but as objects for satisfying their every whim.
Of course, the sex scenes are designed to titillate but it’s hard to argue that they’re entirely gratuitous.
With almost as much male flesh on show as there is female, you could suggest that Spartacus is an equal opportunity offender. For a show about testosterone-fuelled brutes, it’s also surprisingly progressive. The women of the show are distinct and complex: each of them are acting out their own agendas, independent of the male plot lines.
As the show’s title character, British-born actor Andy Whitfield is an absolute revelation. Spartacus’ journey from slave to hero over the show’s first season feels entirely earned thanks to Whitfield’s stoic and sincere performance.
Poised to be the series’ break-out star, Whitfield was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma shortly after the first season wrapped. To give him time to receive treatment, the producers shot a six-part prequel featuring much of the same cast. Despite being given the all-clear, Whitfield’s cancer unfortunately relapsed in September of 2010 and he was dead within a year.
In subsequent seasons, Spartacus is played by Aussie actor Liam McIntyre. While Whitfield’s presence is sorely missed, McIntyre’s performance is a faithful tribute to his predecessor.
Once you get over the shock of the violence and sex, you begin to tune in to Spartacus’ wavelength. It’s a smartly written show that relies on character motivations to drive the plot. Each episode leads on from the last one, so it always feels like there’s narrative momentum Like Breaking Bad, every twist and turn in the plot feels logical and earned. The end result is some seriously satisfying television.
Dismissed by critics when it first debuted in 2010, the show has gone on to prove its detractors wrong by delivering three (and a half) seasons of compelling, bone-crunching television gold.
Spartacus is in our Try TV on Us collection so the first episode is available to watch on us. You literally have nothing to lose but 50 minutes of your time.
We implore you to check it out. Just click here.