Review: TV’s Spartacus

I’ve been enjoying the second season DVDs (third if you count the prequel) of Starz studio’s Spartacus, which is called Spartacus: Vengeance. It’s definitely not your typical sword and sandal epic. There’s more sex and ultra violence than usual in this one. This is the Uncut version, and boy don’t they let it all hang out – boobs, bums, cocks, entrails…! And the people behind it, headed by former Buffy alumni Steven S Deknight, do a very nice line in lurid cod-Shakespearean dialogue: “You have cock to rival Jupiter himself. A few errant slaves amounts to flies circling a bull’s arse”.

This time around Spartacus is played by Liam Mcintyre, replacing Andy Whitfield, who died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2011. He looks the part and acts well enough, but I’ve gotta say, Andy, we miss you! Another replacement is Cynthia Addai-Robinson who is playing the role of the slave girl Naevia, who was played by Lesley-Ann Brandt in season one. She does a nice job, but I must say Brandt was possessed of a rare luminous beauty that few actresses could match, so yes, she is also missed. The official site said she was not able to repeat the role due to ‘the delay in production’. Apart from these two, most of the original cast are intact, including the wonderful Lucy Lawless as Lucretia the scheming Oracle of Capua.

The main cast members take to the demands of the quite formal and stylised acting and language admirably. I’m definitely a fan of Manu Bennett, who brings an incredible intensity to his character of gladiator Crixus. But some of the minor cast members don’t do so well.

The show is made in New Zealand with a mostly local cast, and I have to admit it does take some getting used to hearing those Kiwi accents coming from toga and armour-clad characters. I guess it’s not much different to hearing American accents though.

For a story that’s so much about the violence and manly deeds of gladiators and Roman soldiers, one of the strong points of the show is its focus on women. Lawless’s Lucretia and Viva Bianca’s Ilithyia and their endless scheming and circling of each other (it’s really been a love/hate dance) for status and position within Roman society has been one of the show’s highlights. It’s also been nice to see some girl power happening amongst the slave women. At one point, Spartacus’s partner Mira, who has been learning archery, says to a freed slave girl who has been sleeping her way to advancement, “sieze it with your own hands, not by the spreading of your legs”.

Producer and writer DeKnight has clearly learned a thing or two from his mentor Joss Whedon, especially about ‘going for the pain’ – and by pain I’m not just talking your standard beheadings or disembowelments (though there’s also plenty of that). No, I mean dramatic pain, the kind that happens when your favourite characters are shattered emotionally (and so, by extension, are you), or when a plot twist occurs that horrifies you. The first season death of the character Varro by his friend Spartacus’s own hands was one such occasion. This season continues that tradition.

There’s much to like about this version of the Spartacus story, including a kick-ass soundtrack. But my favourite thing is the show’s CGI landscapes. Those haunting cloud-streaked views of the valleys of Capua from the vantage point of Batiatus’s hilltop ludis (gladiator school). Or the red-tinged twilights that bathe our gladiators in memory and glory forever as they cut each other down. Epic man, epic…