Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena premieres tonight at 10:00pm Eastern on STARZ.
For those that didn’t see it, Spartacus: Blood and Sand serves as a punch line, not a television series. For those that only made it through its initial few episodes, Spartacus: Blood and Sand serves as a combination of 300 and bad Cinemax soft-core porn. But for those that survived the show’s initial (and honestly, fairly substantial) growing pains, Spartacus: Blood and Sand serves as a remarkable example of what long-form storytelling can produce. Casual observers might rename characters of the show as Thrusticus for their own amusement, but they would be missing the point of the seemingly gratuitous amounts of violence and sex that exist in this world.
The best word to describe the show is “orgiastic,” a word I first heard uttered by my seventh grade English teacher. As he tried to calmly explain over a sea of nervous titters in the classroom, an “orgy” can be applied to anything done in excess. And the excess of Spartacus stems from excess of the world that it’s showing. Now, that might seem like a pat excuse, but the show features a host of characters that wear their appetites on their sleeves. (When they actually wear sleeves, which isn’t all that often, to be sure.)
But what turned Spartacus from merely a show about people with excessive appetites for violence, sex, and other carnal pleasures into something worth critically celebrating? The appetites that were submerged, however futilely. The desires that were suppressed, however painfully. A Bacchanalian revelry would give way to a small moment between two slaves, and it was in the latter moment that Spartacus gained its power. The orgiastic state still exists, to be sure, with the majority of its characters choosing to walk into rooms genitals first. But the show found ways to push past the overt T&A and find a beating heart at the center of what some could perceive as a simple bloodbath.
Those qualities still exist in the prequel series, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, but they are slightly hampered by that affliction known as prequel-itis. No, we don’t learn that gladiators are chosen by their levels of Midchlorians in the early proceedings of this six-episode bridge between seasons one and two of the show, but there’s something mechanical about the proceedings that belies the robust, go-for-broke, anything-is-possible-and-will-usually-be-much-batshit-crazier-than-you-anticipated energy that stoked the show’s narrative flame over the last half of its initial year. By the time that season built up to its finale, the show was operating at peak power, brimming with limitless possibility.
So why go back at all? Why a prequel? Sadly, the reasons for that are not creative so much as sadly practical. As many reading this know, lead actor Andy Whitfield had to bow out of the show (at first temporarily, then permanently), leaving the creators of the show in a bind. Unable to initially envision a show without its lead actor (a decision they have since overcome, with Whitfield’s own blessing), they devised this prequel series, set five years before the events in Blood and Sand. Is this six-episode series better than nothing at all? Absolutely. Could it eventually prove to be a powerful addition to the Spartacus world? Definitely. Is that a guarantee of greatness? If only.
It’s about now that I should warn newbies to the Spartacus world of something: If you’re using this series as your entry point, I’d advise against it. The introductory moments are a Cliff Notes version of Blood and Sand, a decision I can’t quite understand. There are plenty of shows that use the start of a new season as a chance to insert Expositional Character into the mix in order to bring the viewing audience up to speed. But Gods of the Arena assumes that everyone watching this series has seen season one, so be warned upfront that if you don’t want those 13 episodes condensed into a 90-second splatter-and-sex fest, either go watch Blood and Sand first or just cover your eyes and sing songs extolling Jupiter’s penis for the first few minutes of the first episode.
Once you’re in this prequel world, things turn mathematical, not visceral, for much of the hour. Sure, all the staples of a great episode of Spartacus are there: some great fighting, boobs a’ plenty, and enough Machiavellian scheming to make the current American government look like a couple of kids armed with water balloons. How the show envisions the state of certain characters at this point in time often lines up with the mythology laid out in the initial season, but even when Arena throws a twist at us, the dramatic irony only calls attention to the artifice of the show. A show like Spartacus doesn’t play well with irony; it works best when it draws the viewer in, and devices that call attention to the man behind the curtain only serve to make things seem a little silly.
By the end of Blood and Sand, creator Stephen S. DeKnight and his fellow writers knew exactly what made those characters tick. Through no real fault of their own, they now have to introduce the audience to essentially brand new characters, ones that look slightly younger than similar figures we thought we knew but often barely recognize. There can be a lot of fun in going back in time and seeing things through a past that complicates the present. But the flipside of that coin is a variation on the old Alias standby, the “XX Hours Earlier” trick that show used to feature a slam-bang intro only to rewind and then build up to over the ensuing hour.
Gods of the Arena, through the visual device it uses to drop back in time, feels somewhat like that type of trick. (Though, in keeping with the graphic themes of the show, perhaps it’s really a “XXX Hours Earlier” trick.) That’s not to say that’s what this six-episode series will be. I can only go by wht the initial episode has to offer, which is a lot of “Wow, look at how different THIS character is!” It’s world-building for a world that’s already been built, embodied by the gladiatorial arena that sits half-finished in the background of this first hour. We know how the final product will look, both in terms of edifice and character, so the pleasures that exist in Arena have to come in the form of character decisions that feel surprising yet organic in order to land them in the pre-ordained place five years hence. That’s what I mean when I call these events mathematical.
Again, short of making season two all about an unseen Spartacus giving orders to his compatriots in the wake of the events of “Kill Them All,” I’m not sure how the producers of Spartacus could have gone any other way without shutting things down entirely. New characters such as Gannicus (then champion of Batiatus’ ludus) and Gaia (a Katy Perry-esque take on Ilithyia) keep events from entirely feeling like “My Capuan Generation,” but these new characters simply serve to emphasize what is missing, not gained, by their inclusion. (Though, to be fair, “tons of Lucy Lawless lesbian sex” is technically an addition, one that will be applauded by many.)
Gannicus initially acts like a complete prick, truth be told, a pampered rock star blessed with talent but little work ethic. However, by hour’s end, there is slightly more depth there than was initially feared. As for Gaia, she serves not only to titillate seemingly everyone with a pulse but also gives insight into the state of the House of Batiatus. Once again, Batiatus finds himself longing for a station higher than his own but faces new challenges not only political, but paternal as well. Yep, looks like our boy Batiatus has himself some daddy issues. If Spartacus needs another prequel, maybe they can set it on The Island from Lost.
All of this may sound overly harsh, especially considering the circumstances surrounding the origin of this prequel series. There are definitely pleasures to be had, and more than a few of you will undoubtedly enjoy seeing the status of certain seminal characters five years before the events in Blood and Sand. (The one character that actually improves through this device I must keep secret, since even revealing that character spoils a surprise about him/her.) And just as the initial series grew by leaps and bounds as it progressed, so too may Gods of the Arena eventually stand shoulder to bloody shoulder with its predecessor. With so many things working against it, it’s a miracle that any of this works at all. So while the prequel starts under less-than-ideal circumstances, there’s hope that even though we know the final destination, the journey there will provide at least some truly unexpected pleasures.