Spartacus: Blood and Sand is a TV series that very nearly passed me by because I am a man of taste and discrimination and Spartacus is basically the opposite of those things. At first glance it appears to be a sort of cross between the film ‘300’ and cut scenes from a terrible 1990s computer game, but in truth there is more to it that meets the eye. I’ve only seen the first series – tragically the star of season one isn’t returning for season two as he is is battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – but it is currently ongoing and I will definitely check it out soon. So here are the top 5 reasons I can think of why you should give Spartacus a chance:
Number 5. It’s endearingly stupid. Most shows these days are clever, maybe even too clever for their own good – they play with audience expectations, they have subtle plot twists and characters that are not what they first appear. There is character development and emotional moments. Spartacus doesn’t bother with that nonsense – there are no anticlimaxes where violence is threatened and then instead people come to a peaceful understanding, there are no shades of grey or subtlety – it’s like a 14 year old’s power fantasy where you can rest assured that the hero is going to go from strength to strength until he kills everyone. It’s like a David Gemmel book. It’s the antithesis to the (excellent) Rome HBO series, where the Romans mostly talked and sure that was interesting but sometimes you just want to see fight scenes against giant monster men where limbs get hacked off. The final episode of the season is called ‘Kill Them All’ and it’s about as subtle as it sounds.
Number 4. It should really be called Blood and Nudity as those are the two things you will take away from it. Sure there is some sand but it’s overshadowed by the constant, constant nudity and blood. It’s ironic that clearly the shows producers have set out to emulate HBO – a network which is famous for including nudity and violence – but they have taken it to such a ridiculous extreme that the small amounts of violence and nudity in say, HBO’s Game of Thrones just seems laughably tame in comparison. Blood goes literally everywhere, at times the (mostly computer generated) blood blots out the entire screen. There are graphic eviscerations, dozens of decapitations and more deaths than you can reasonably count. The computer graphics take a bit of getting used to, but after a while I began to admire this way of doing things – it’s something I’ve seen before in ‘Zatoichi’ and it allows for lots of vicious stabbing, slicing and limb-chopping-off. The violence is a mix of realistic wounds and stylised effects which means it doesn’t feel like you are watching some hideous series of mutilations but just some good old fashioned fun violence.
Number 3.The dialogue may be terrible but you can’t hold it against it. It’s strange but the dialogue in Spartacus has a charm all of it’s own. I grew to enjoy the hilarious attempts at making people sound like they were from Roman times. For example, Romans don’t say ‘thank you’ they say ‘gratitude’ and they don’t say ‘sorry’ they say ‘apologies’. It’s like someone did a find/replace on the script to try and make it sound more period. And at least one person will talk about something being ‘given purpose’ or ‘put to purpose’ per episode. And then there are the metaphors and analogies which are sometimes so terrible that you can’t help but laugh. Oh, or one bit where they threw in some latin to say that someone would be executed ‘ad gladium’ despite the fact that presumably everyone is meant to be talking Latin all the time. At least they tried though, it’s kind of sweet – like a school play where the kids have written their own dialogue. Set in an violent Roman gladiator school.
Number 2. It’s better than 300. Spartacus is obviously designed to appeal to people who enjoyed 300 and it definitely will. But it will probably appeal to people who didn’t like 300 as well. You see, 300 was very pretentious whereas Spartacus KNOWS it is as stupid as a sack full of gladiators. I can imagine the original concept for Spartacus was ‘make it like a HBO series based on 300… except with less body hair’, and it succeeds at those lofty ambitions. It’s more homoerotic than 300 as well, which is quite a feat. In fact it is probably the most homoerotic TV show about burly men in a prison since Oz. While 300 seemed to think it was something better than it was – something I would suggest is common in all Zack Snyder films – Spartacus is just a happy idiot of a show – I think this is probably Sam Raimi’s influence and it’s all the better for it.
Number 1. John Hannah is basically a Roman version of Malcolm Tucker from The Thick Of It, a little angry Scottish despot who shouts and swears at anyone and everyone. He’s great and clearly having the time of his life, and though the swearing is never quite up to Malcolm’s level of ingenuity it’s still pretty hilarious: ‘Jupiter’s cock!’ is my new favourite exclamation. John Hannah never even bothers trying to act like a Roman and really steals every scene he is in, largely because most of the other characters in the film are barely even capable of speaking, let alone acting. In fairness to them though they do all try their best and it’s quite endearing watching them frowning and stumbling over the hilariously bad dialogue. ‘You smell of piss’ remarks one gladiator. ‘You smell of piss AND shit’ comes the retort from another, demonstrating his rapier wit and looking pleased with himself. Lucy Lawless is not too bad either I suppose though her scenes, which are mainly about the treachery and backstabbing that Romans are famous for really just serve as interludes between people getting chopped to bits.
I did think that the first couple of episodes were notably worse than the rest – they are set outside the gladiator school and the CGI budget is clearly stretched trying to do outdoor scenes. Once they chop off Spartacus’ hair, things get better and the series becomes more interesting.