Sunday, January 23, 2011

SPARTACUS: Gods of Blood and Sand

After having watched the first episode of the prequel to SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND, I realized that I had never blogged about it, and am now correcting my oversight; indeed oversight is the correct word, as I think a number of people unfairly overlook this show, which is has been called, a little unfairly in my mind, a 'guilty pleasure.'

I understand the impulse to label STARZ original series, SPARTACUS, as a 'guilty pleasure', as it's very uncompromising in it's vision and it's commitment to it's extreme content; quite frankly, SPARTACUS is not for the prudish or the weak kneed. The the only thing more graphic than the sex is the violence, as blood gushes forth, thick and viscus, like something from a the most graphic of graphic novels. Heads are severed, stomachs are disemboweled, limbs are rendered from body, all to cheers. Similarly, pelvises thrust, breasts are bared, and penises are erect and eager. Not for the faint of heart indeed. But that's what makes it so good.

SPARTACUS isn't there to coddle you; this is an explicitly adult show for a mature audience; so why should it be afraid to feature adult content? While not historically accurate, SPARTACUS is set during the one of the most decadent, hedonistic, era's of recorded history, where society endulged in visceral pleasures of blood and sex without taboo or judgment. SPARTACUS' goal, as a series, isn't to be historically accurate, but more to give you an idea of what it was like to be experience such tactile, forbidden, pleasures. To live vicariously through the spectacle of combat, and the pleasures of guilt free, anonymous, sex. And that inevitably, in our stuck up, prudish, society with it's weird, buttoned up, relationship with sex and violence (strangely more with sex than violence), makes people feel guilty. Thus, the show is labeled a guilty pleasure, as critics gloss over what makes the show compelling; character and drama.

SPARTACUS is a very character driven show, populated by a colorful cast of complex and memorable characters, played to great effect with obvious pleasure and gusto by a skilled cast of actors. Spartacus, a noble warrior betrayed and enslaved, lives with the tragic loss of his wife, and finds release and purpose in the deadly Gladitorial games, which brings great fortune to the scheming, ambitious, owner of his Ludus, Batiatus, who has designs on rising above his station and seizing political power, spurred on by his duplicitous wife, Lucretia, who is torn by her love of her husband, and her lust for his current champion, Crixus. Crixus, for this part, has an contentious relationship with Spartacus, who he resents for his designs on taking his place as champion. And that's just the core cast.

Among the supporting players are equally compelling characters; Spartacus best friend, Varro, a thrill seeking gambler who paid his way INTO the Ludus, Ashur, a former Gladiator who becomes the scheming right hand of Batiatus (he's actually my favorite character, because he reminds me of Starscream; a remarkably intelligent coward with a cockroach like knack for survival, and an eye for opportunity), Doctore, former champion turned maker of champions, and steadfast ally of Crixis, and finally, and most interestingly, Ilithyia, the wife of Spartacus sworn enemy, the Roman soldier that sold out his people to slavery and genocide, Claudius Glaber; Ilithyia is a spoiled rotten temptress who lurks around the Ludus as a guest of Lucretia, engineering horrific tortures for the hated Spartacus, while none to subtly taking catty digs at Lucretia, who plays her like a violin, manipulating the ignorant and hateful young socialite.

SPARTACUS is equal parts comic book action and operatic drama; an action soap opera for adults. Characters scheme, betray, back stab, manipulate, threaten, and sometimes literally fuck with, each other, in a tornado of drama, all framed by some of the most over the top, beautiful and horrifyingly violent action you've seen this side of 300. In one particularly bitchy scheme, Lucretia, to protect her vested interest in the horse-like cock of Crixus, tricks Ilithyia into sating her burning lust with her hated enemy, Spartacus, as they make sensual love while wearing masks and covered in gold, only to have Ilithyia's social rival walk in on them, threatening to tell all of Rome about her illicit activities. In a fit of insane rage and embarrassment, Ilithyia snaps, and beats her rivals brains out against the hard marble edge of the pool, spilling blood and grey matter all over the floor as she caves her skull in. And that's not even the WORST thing that happens in the show... but it is the most shocking, as you never see it coming.

And that's really SPARTACUS greatest strength; it's unpredictability! It's a show that keeps you on the edge of your seat with surprise revelations and plot twists, as secrets are slowly revealed. Nothing is sacred and the stakes are high; every character is at risk of losing his life at any time; and it all comes to a head in a final kill crazy rampage at the end, in which every subplot is neatly tied up, and everyone gets their rightful comeuppance.

After strong first season, I'm entirely excited by the prospect of the prequel show SPARTACUS: GODS OF THE ARENA, which goes aback about five years to show the rise of Batiatus (portrayed by the shockingly excellent John Hannah) to control of his father's Ludus, building on the mythology hinted at in the first season of BLOOD AND SAND. The prequel promises to show the training and rise of Crixis as champion of the Ludus, the transition of Doctore from champion to trainer of champions, and the fall of Ashur, who had ambitions to become a Gladiator and instead is rendered lame by fate. All of this revolves around the current champion, the humble yet charming Gadicus, who is unaware of the terrible fate that hangs over his head, like the Sword of Damocles.

I expect great things, and I'm sure I won't be disappointed.

SPARTACUS is a pleasure yes, but hardly a guilty one. It's not high art, but neither does it aspire to be, instead embracing it's crass, visceral, nature and providing shout inducing thrills (I cry out "OH SHIT!" at never beheading or disemboweling), and compelling drama, all supported by a colorful cast of complex and compelling characters. It's not high art, but it does promise to show you something you've ever seen on TV before... an unapologetically, uncompromisingly, adult show.

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