Aug 26, 2010

[TV] Spartacus Blood And Sand: Season 1

Spartacus Blood and Sand: Season 1It's interesting to note how more and more "premium" pay-TV channels are doing their best to expand their respective little empires. HBO led the charge when they started to become more than just a 24 hour movie channel. They expanded their line-up to include live performances of comedians and musical artists. They started to produce their own original TV shows. Heck, they even started to sponsor exclusive sporting events that could only be seen on their network. And thus the pattern was set.

Showtime followed suit in time, and they've started to do rather well in the original series arena. Now Starz is the latest to join the trend with shows like Crash and the upcoming Torchwood: The New World. I'm not quite sure what their plan of attack or pattern is - there doesn't seem to be a consistent theme to their stuff. HBO and Showtime have pretty much clearly defined the limits they like to explore and their respective definitions of "edginess" with varying degrees of success.

If there is an initial pattern, then it would appear to be that they like making original TV shows based on popular movies. Crash remains to be quite the gripping Oscar-winning movie. And from a much older period, Spartacus was also quite the success at the Academy Awards then. Sure, this series isn't directly adapted from that 1960 Kubrick film, but it sort of follows this assumed pattern. Of course looking at their upcoming releases, I doubt this is the clue behind their productions just yet.

Intertitle from the television program Spartac...Image via WikipediaSpartacus: Blood & Sand is a series based around the life of the popular historical figure of the same name. Andy Whitman plays the titular role of the Thracian slave of old.

His story begins under the abusive command of Cladius Glaber (Craig Parker). When he and his fellow Thracians decided to disobey the orders of their Roman allies, he eventually returns home to find his village burning. He manages to escape with his wife Sura (Erin Cummings) but eventually they are caught by the pursuing Romans. Glaber has Spartacus sent to die in the gladiator arena and his wife is taken to be sold into slavery.

In time, the Thracian finds himself in Capua to be trained as a gladiator. Glaber arranges to have him die in the arena at the hands of four other gladiators but he somehow manages to kill them all, thus winning the hearts of the crowd. Senator Albinius decides to commute his death sentence to slavery. Lentulus Bartiatus (John Hannah) suggests he be named Spartacus after a great Thracian king and eventually purchases him to become part of his ludus of gladiators. Thus Spartacus begins his journey to become a true gladiator, to find his wife and somehow survive the entire ordeal.

In the beginning, I found the series a bit odd in terms of pacing and the characters were clearly not yet comfortable with their respective roles. It probably didn't help that Starz tried to push the pay-TV envelope by going for a lot of full frontal nudity in the show - both male and female. Even if a number of them decided to go with prosthetics for such scenes (while a few others didn't), I'm just not sure if the whole bit was really necessary. It certainly made for a cheap thrill in the show.

Another quirk of the program was the manner in which they chose to stylize the whole thing. Fight scenes made generous use of computer-generated blood that was spurted in sufficient quantities to become quite cartoony. But given it was more often than not animated blood instead of simulated prop blood, it seemed very fake and somehow "hollow" for lack of a better term. It didn't really add to the realism nor was it done in a manner artistic enough to make it seem dramatically appropriate. It was just there in those weird slow motion moments that somehow wanted to channel Frank Miller without trespassing on his copyrights around 300 or something.

Acting-wise, it took me a while to appreciate Whitman's interpretation of the character. Hanna was his usual whiney, tiring self as we've seen in the Mummy movies. And the whole lot of gladiators were all one-dimensional and hammy and don't even get me started on Parker. He felt like a misplaced Darkan Rahl hoping Legend of the Seeker would come back already. The only performance that really impressed me all throughout the season was Lucy Lawless as Batiatus' wife, Lucretia. Now that was a well-written character excellently brought to life by Lawless in a role that was far more feminine that I thought her capable of. I guess that's what I get for always remembering her as Xena more than any other character she's portrayed.

The story itself was, well, methodical but not always fluid. I the first half of the series it felt like they just had a list of events that needed to happen and then they hoped that somehow the characters would find a way to get there. Sure, each scene was good on its own and there were definitely beautiful moments here and there. However when you put it all together, it didn't feel as fluid or consistent as it could have been. It felt like the writers only truly became comfortable with their characters and their plot towards the very end of the season when they started to wrap things up.

Given how the season ended, I have no idea how they plan to continue telling this story. The characters' original motivations are mostly gone and the supposed "antagonists" are no longer a threat. And yet a second season is indeed in the works right now and one can only wonder where they're going to send our nameless Thracian next. It still might be worth the journey though - there's been worse stuff on TV after all.

Spartacus Blood and Sand is a good example of how Starz is growing into its new realm of original programming. It gets 3.5 overly stuffed cod pieces out of a possible 5.
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