Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"Spartacus: Blood and Sand" is the Best Worst Show on Television

Over the past few months, people in were treated to a wondrous spectacle.

I'm speaking, of course, of Starz's Spartacus: Blood and Sand. A show which, according to TV critic Todd VanDerWerff, "feels like it was committee designed by a large group of 14-year-old boys with one gay friend." And rightfully so. As one would expect, the show was so successful that it was green-lighted for a second season before it even aired. And rightfully so.

The first thing you need to know is that this is not your father's Spartacus. Unlike that Stanley Kubrick movie and the Howard Fast novel, this isn't about using Spartacus's slave uprising as an allegory. This is about a realistic portrayal of what actually happened. This is a show that gets at what the uprising was really about, which was apparently revenge.

The tone is set with the following disclaimer, which airs before every episode:
Spartacus depicts extreme sensuality, brutality and language that some viewers may find objectionable. The show is a historical portrayal of ancient Roman society and the intensity of the content is to suggest an authentic representation of that period.
As one would expect with such a disclaimer, it's a gritty, naturalistic show that's incredibly committed to realism. It's so committed to realism that they hired not one but two historical consultants to find all the most intense and extreme historical facts they could find. Did you know, for instance, that when gladiators practice, they do so in a space surrounded by walls on three sides and incredibly fake-looking CGI cliffs on one side, so that they can do stuff like this:

At least I think that's what what ancient Rome actually like. Or maybe one of the historical consultants was also JJ Abrams's Iowa geography consultant for Star Trek XI.

Actually, come to think of it, the only historical accuracy seems limited to only those aspects that are extremely sensual and brutal. So we get all sorts of details of ancient Roman sexual practices and extra-bloody 300-style fight scenes, but do we get any depiction of the ancient Roman practice of people plucking all of their body hair one strand at a time with tweezers so they're presentable in public? No cigar. That practice may be authentic and objectionable, but it's not very extreme.

It also has extreme language, which may seem a bit weird, since the ancient Romans spoke Latin. However, they're just following in the tradition of Deadwood. In Deadwood, David Milch thought that the nineteenth century swear words didn't have the same impact in modern times, so he used modern swears to better convey the connotations of the swears, rather than the actual words. He was also careful to make sure that the ruffians swore all the time while the proper upper class people didn't. In Spartacus: Blood and Sand all the characters regularly switch back and forth between swears "fuck" and "cock" and euphemisms like "lie with"; sometimes in the span of a single sentence.

Being a TV show, rather than a novel or a movie, the first season is focused entirely on the events leading up to Spartacus's escape. We get to follow Spartacus forced into slavery, beaten down, overworked, taught to view the other gladiators as enemies and deprived of his humanity. No, wait a minute, that's the Kubrick version. In this version he's forced into slavery, regularly bonds with his friends, bonds with his master, sleeps with slave-girls and high society types, wins over the crowd in the games, and hones his skills so he can be the best darned gladiator he can be.

But then it turns out his master was killing his ex-slaves who had bought their freedom. And he had Spartacus's wife killed. So Spartacus vows revenge. Fellow gladiator Crixus was boinking his master's wife Lucretia (aka Xena: Warrior Princess), but then she tried to kill him, so he vows revenge and joins Spartacus. The other gladiators also probably want revenge for something, because it's not like slaves would lead a revolt for something as trivial as not wanting to be slaves. It's gotta be revenge.

Leading up to the climactic revolt, we also follow the adventures of Spartacus's master Scottish-accented master, Lentulus Batiatus and his New Zealand-accented wife as they try to make Spartacus famous and plot devious plots. Several scenes feature the two of them plotting their plots while slaves fondle their naughty bits.

For a show so committed to over-the-top sex and violence it's fitting that the two best/worst episodes are called "Whore" and "Kill Them All". Incidentally, those two titles are meant to be shouted at the top of your lungs. So are all the episode titles, in fact. And every line of dialogue in every episode. And this blog entry. In fact, if, thus far, you haven't been shouting this blog entry at the top of your lungs, you should start over again and do it right.

The plot of "Whore" is focused on the devious plotting of Lucretia. You know how, ever since the BBC I, Claudius mini-series, every TV show about ancient Rome has had to feature a Livia-like character who tries to work her way to the top by sneaking behind her husbands back and ruthlessly taking down anybody who gets in her way? Well Lucretia's that character. Actually all of the female characters are that character. Except the lady-slaves.

Anyway, her rival's wife, Ilithyia pushes things too far by trying to boink Lucretia's boy-toy Crixus. Ilithyia had previously lost a prominent gladiator to Spartacus, so Lucretia gets her revenge by tricking Ilithyia inly boinking Spartacus instead, thus embarrassing her in front of some other chick named Licinia. How does she accomplish this? I'm glad you asked. Here you go:

Anyway, she's so embarrassed that she and Licinia engage in the shortest, most violent cat-fight ever, filled with CGI blood and CGI brains. Don't worry about the shortness, though, it's all in slow motion.

Of course, it all comes together in the season finale, entitled "Kill Them All" because that's what they do. Except for Ilithyia who gets her revenge by locking Lucretia in her own home when the slaves revolt. If you like watching people being killed, you will love the episode "Kill Them All". Even the little boy aristocrat gets killed (but it's okay, because it's by a little girl slave). Plus bullet-time knife dodging.

The whole series, despite its pretensions to resembling Kubrick's Spartacus, HBO's Rome and Deadwood, far more closely resembles 300 and Star Trek XI. Unlike those two movies, this is actually enjoyable to watch.

Why is that so? Because it's made by Steven S. DeKnight.

This guy got his start writing for Buffy the Vampire Slayer where his most noteworthy episode, "Spiral" involved the characters fleeing into the desert in a Winnebago while fighting an army of knights on horseback. It was an amazing action scene that, on closer thought, didn't make much sense.

His Buffy and Angel episodes weren't necessarily the top quality episodes (although the Angel episode "Deep Down" was), but they always had some of the best visuals and they were the most bad-ass. When he started writing for Smallville which never tried to make sense anyway, he made the best episodes period.

Basically Steven S. DeKnight is a large group of 14-year-old boys with one gay friend in an adult's body, while JJ Abrams is a full grown adult pandering to a large group of 14-year-old boys with no gay friends. 300's Frank Miller, like DeKnight is also a large group of 14-year-old boys with one gay friend in an adult's body, but the one gay friend is closeted and overcompensates by shouting out homophobic comments all the time.

So, anyway, Spartacus: Blood and Sand is a profoundly stupid show. It has nothing to say about slavery that Kubrick didn't say better, and nothing to say about ancient Rome in general, that countless other books, movies and TV shows didn't do better. But it's got this

so it's not like you can say anything bad about it.


  1. HBO's Rome was infinitely superior in terms of both historical accuracy and plot development. It actually showed what the average Roman citizen's life was like ( through the characters Pullo and Vorenus) as well as the mafioso lifestyles of the Senatorial class ( and a lot of mafia families can name at least one Senatorial ancestor). I appreciate fight scenes and gore as much as the next guy, but Spartacus B & S was just too stupid to watch beyonfd the first episode.

  2. "At least I think that's what what ancient Rome actually like. Or maybe one of the historical consultants was also JJ Abrams's Iowa geography consultant for Star Trek XI."

    Haha oh my god awesome. I'm going to hire that guy to be my personal life decision consultant. I'll be like, "Hmm, where should I apply for a postdoc?" And he'll be all, "Hmm, did you try JUMPING OFF AN ENORMOUS CLIFF?!!!"

  3. People must avoid seeing tv shows as if they were documentaries about romans. Maybe that's why most people think such bad things about romans that they try anything not to be considered being direct or indirect descendants of romans and instead being gescendants of those who fought bravely against the nazis of the ancient world...

  4. I fucking love this blog, but one gripe, I thought the 300 movie was amazing, Spartacus kind of rides off the success of that movie. I knew that this show was going to be terrible, but I am watching it anyway, it's entertaining over how stupid it is, after watching Rome, which was amazing, it really makes the flaws in Spartacus stand out even more. The only reason I decided to give Spartacus a look is because of the Daredevil movie, and also Steven De Knight once said that 300 was one of his favourite movie. I think after this piece of shit I will have to watch Rome again, just so I can watch something that has substance, all Spartacus has is style, and the style it has looks fake, the cgi is almost as bad as the cgi in Sons of Anarchy.