Early in the first episode of the Starz series Spartacus: Blood And Sand, the eponymous hunk, in a tableau that looks torn from the cover of a romance novel, ties a ribbon around the leg of his comely wife before they’re separated by war and later sold into slavery. “Keep me close to your thighs,” says Spartacus, a line so ripe that it’s either a you-had-me-at-hello moment, or cause to reach for the remote. Though it fuses the stylized action of modern sword-and-sandal hits like Gladiator and 300 with the explicitness and behind-the-scenes treachery of HBO’s Rome, Spartacus: Blood And Sand amps up the luridness of its influences in every department. Call it trash, call it pre-Christian WWE, call it a guilty pleasure, call it whatever you like: This series makes a raw appeal to the senses, essentially converting its viewers into the cheering, lustful bread-and-circuses crowd that gathers to watch its gladiators battle to the death. It proves damned irresistible, which probably speaks poorly of us as a species.
Then again, Spartacus: Boobs And Abs isn’t just a savvy piece of juvenilia. It’s also a smartly plotted melodrama that brings Spartacus’ story into a house of vipers that’s like Macbeth by way of Melrose Place. Like most of the men in the cast, Andy Whitfield looks chiseled from stone by God Himself, but his intensity and charisma as Spartacus gives the show a strong center. (Sadly, Whitfield’s ongoing battle with cancer will keep him out of the second season, and he may prove irreplaceable.) His journey begins when a duplicitous Roman general (Craig Parker) convinces him and his fellow Thracians to enlist in the service as auxiliaries, so they can fight the Getae, who frequently raid their land. When the general isn’t true to his word, Spartacus leads a mutiny that ends with his village getting razed, his wife sold to slavery, and him condemned to die at the hands of four gladiators in a public arena. His unexpected survival in the face of certain execution sets tongues wagging, and none are waggier than that of Batiatus (John Hannah), an inveterate gambler who purchases Spartacus and brings him to his ludus in Capua to train as a gladiator.
Aside from the many blood-soaked confrontations in the arena, most of the drama is confined to Batiatus’ estate, a hothouse of secrets, betrayals, and vicious power plays, not to mention more sex and violence than an average 14-year-old boy can handle without a prescription. Creator Steven S. DeKnight and his writers constantly play to our baser instincts, and the cast, particularly the delectably sinister husband-wife team of Hannah’s Batiatus and Lucy Lawless’ Lucretia, embraces the spirit of unchecked hedonism. The action sequences could fairly be tagged as 300 on a budget, but the show cleverly overcomes its limitations by playing up the unreality of its green-screen backdrops and computer-generated effects. Spartacus delivers on the brute force of larger-than-life gladiators in conflict, but its blood-spurts and beheadings are strikingly abstract and beautiful. The sex, too, is wonderfully shameless: It’s rare for movies or TV shows to be equal-opportunity objectifiers, but there are no limits to the beef- and cheesecake on display here, and the pansexuality—men and women, men and men, women and women—exists without need for comment. It’s fuck or fight in the world of Spartacus: Blood And Sand, and that’s what pay cable is all about, right?
Key features: Commentaries on select episodes join a fourth-disc extras package that includes a 15-minute behind-the-scenes doc and a disposable batch of mini-featurettes.