Spartacus: "The Red Serpent"
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Spartacus: "The Red Serpent"

C

Spartacus

"The Red Serpent"

Season 1, Episode 1

Spartacus: Blood And Sand debuts tonight on Starz at 10 p.m. EST.

Spartacus: Blood and Sand feels like it was committee designed by a large group of 14-year-old boys with one gay friend. It has literally everything you'd expect 14-year-old boys to enjoy - from lots and lots of naked breasts to blood spattering in every direction to an aesthetic that seems like 300 done on your weekly grocery budget to occasional awkward swearing - and then it also has lots of shirtless men and occasional shots of penises. I'm all for equality in nudity (True Blood's laissez-faire attitude toward sexuality is one of the best things about it), but when the show's this stupid, any other progressive stuff it seems to do just gets shot down by the fact that it's, well, pretty damned stupid.

Now, I say this based on only seeing the pilot and half the second episode before I bailed. Other critics insist it gets better in the next two episodes, and I'll make sure to watch those to let you know if it does, indeed, but Maureen Ryan's comparison of the show to True Blood (a show I can see why people enjoy it while not regularly enjoying it myself) makes me think that even if this somehow hit a camptastic peak of man-flesh and bloodthirst, it still wouldn't really be for me. At the same time, I can see why Starz has already picked up a second season of the show. It's unlike nothing else on TV right now, and in its chintzy aesthetic, it finds a weird kind of false beauty from time to time.

Our lead is newcomer Andy Whitfield, who mostly strikes the right notes of intensity mixed with rueful regret at missing his homeland, but really, he's mostly there to be beefcake in the pilot and to set the wheels of the plot in motion. In all honesty, I wouldn't be surprised by the series getting better in episodes three and four, mostly because the first two are so plot-heavy as to overwhelm any other moments, making the characters mostly ciphers who are moved around by the script like pawns. The pilot is too premise-heavy by far, showing us in exacting detail just how Spartacus came to be where he was when the actual story - which only really gets going in the middle of episode two - began. (To be fair, Spartacus isn't our lead character's real name - it's one bestowed on him - but the series spends so much time calling him that that I'll follow along.)

Spartacus, y'see, is the story of a political rebellion, all wrapped up in a froth of blood and sex, designed to make the show feel more adult than it is (again, the creeping adolescence of the show's design comes into play). There are some interesting points about the ways that occupying forces make those they're occupying feel lower than low, even if they're trying to help out, and the event that sets the whole story in motion - Spartacus and his pals are betrayed by the Romans in battle - is a nice formative moment for our hero, a nice reason for him to become the battler against the republic we know he will be. (Even if at this battle one of Spartacus' pals shouts out, "Where the fuck are the Romans?!" in what sounds like a New Jersey accent. Feel free to make this an Internet meme or something.)

It's here that I should probably pause and talk about the show's relationship to the movie, which is present but also sort of incidental. The two have very similar plot structures, but it's telling that in the Kubrick film, Spartacus turns into the leader of a slave rebellion just because he's a good guy and tired of, well, being a slave. Whitfield's Spartacus is a man who's both been betrayed by the republic and someone whose wife was also sent into slavery. Creator Steven S. DeKnight has clearly revamped and streamlined the story to make it more of a revenge tale, and that should please many, but it misses some of the complexity of Kubrick's film.

Nonetheless, the series attempts a few things that are noteworthy. Much of the writing aims at the kind of fun, swear-filled dialogue that David Milch brought to Deadwood (I rather liked "belched from the cunt of the underworld), but the series hasn't really thought out just why its characters swear or the rhythm of said swearing like Deadwood had. This is a show that seems to be trying to do all of the things it's seen more mature shows doing and never quite getting there, even as it takes on a kind of momentum that's compulsively watchable. (That said, it's worth pointing out that everyone in the cast from unknowns like the fantastic Peter Mensah as gladiator trainer Doctore - a character that brings a show that felt kind of moribund up until that point to life when he shows up in episode two - to bigger names like Lucy Lawless and John Hannah is having a great time, even if the writing isn't to the level of their zeal just yet.)

But every time the show seems to be heading somewhere, it succumbs to those adolescent impulses again, and there's a long sequence of, say, men spraying great geysers of blood from their throats or people having sex that feels rather like the shallow characterization and attitude of some of the worst video games. It certainly doesn't help matters that the series doesn't really look like 300 so much as it looks like all of the actors are wandering around left-behind background paintings from scenes and puzzles cut from Riven. All those who've complained about Avatar looking like a video game haven't really seen just what "looking like a video game" means, and Spartacus is a pretty good reminder of some of the things big budget movies can do that TV just simply can't. (It also has the weird effect of making me nervous about HBO's Game of Thrones, which will be just as special effects dependent.)

But there's something weirdly enjoyable down at the core of Spartacus, and that may be why Starz seems to be betting so heavily on it. It's not an outright failure, but it has enough messy parts that I can't really recommend it either. Watching it is really like feeling like everyone else is having a good time but you can't quite join the party, sadly. It's one of those shows where if you strongly suspect it's for you, you're probably right, and if you strongly suspect you'll hate it, you're probably right about that too.

Stray observations:

  • Some more dialogue: "Keep me close to your thighs." "Ready, Thracian cunt?"
  • Back in the day, I knew a girl who was obsessed with John Hannah and thought he was one of the sexiest men alive (this after seeing him in The Mummy, of all things). I was surprised by how much he seems to have aged, since he already seemed old-ish in his Mummy days.
  • Everything this show does about Roman society just feels like a lesser version of HBO's late, lamented Rome. The series should really stick to the gladiator stuff, as that's something Rome never did very much on.