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Appropriately enough, “Blood” gets top billing over “Sand” in Starz’s “Spartacus: Blood and Sand.” During each episode, so much red fluid gushes and squirts that one might find themselves checking the carpet in front of the TV for spatter stains.
In truth, sand probably comes in third place, behind sex. However, had this series been given the more truthful title, “Spartacus: Blood and Sex,” it would sound too much like an admission of the primacy of the elements used to shore up a story that worked better in film than as a TV series.
It can be argued that, because sex and violence were a big part of Roman lives, they should be a big part of a series set during the height of the Roman Empire. On the other hand, “Spartacus” is a TV series, not a historical re-enactment. As such, writer, creator and executive producer Steven S. DeKnight was not obliged to order fake blood by the gallons, even to the point of using the billowing red liquid as transition between scenes.
What little is known about the real Spartacus is that he was a Roman slave trained as a gladiator. He also was a good enough tactician to organize and lead a slave revolt that took the empire two years to crush.
The story became a book by Howard Fast and then a Stanley Kubrick film in 1960 starring Kirk Douglas. It was retold in 2004 in a USA film starring Goran Visnjic. Unlike those efforts, a TV series requires a lot more story.
So, one gets an episode about Spartacus’ lessons at gladiator school and another episode about his fights in “the pit,” a place brutal enough to make professional wrestling look like ballet. With such thin stories each week, it’s small wonder that sex and violence are used to take up the slack.
Not that violence and sex, both simulated and of the frontal-nudity variety, can’t be relied upon to return good ratings. The series was renewed for a second season even before the first breast has been bared and the first head has been lobbed off.
Andy Whitfield has the requisite physicality for the title role. Beyond that, it’s hard to assess his performance because his character is so consistently two-dimensional. He endures unendurable pain and bears unbearable sorrow, always without complaint. His goal is to reunite with his wife, Sura (Erin Cummings), who also was sold into slavery and who makes occasional appearances in dreams and flashbacks.
In the first four episodes, though, the only one worth watching is Batiatus (John Hannah), who runs the gladiator school where Spartacus is alternately trained and subdued. Dangerously in debt, eager for patronage and wed to an ambitious woman (Lucy Lawless), Batiatus is by far the most complex character in this gory stew.
All scenes, indoors and out, were filmed on a soundstage. The painted sky, which seems vibrant at first, soon feels as artificial as the shopping-mall ceilings adjacent to Las Vegas casinos. Still, the heavens offer a pleasant respite from all the evisceration on the ground.
Airdate: 10-11 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22 (Starz)
Production: Tapert Donen Raimi in association with Starz Originals
Cast: Andy Whitfield, John Hannah, Lucy Lawless, Peter Mensah, Manu Bennett, Erin Cummings, Viva Bianca, Lesley anne, Craig Parker
Executive producers: Rob Tapert, Sam Raimi, Joshua Donen, Steven S. DeKnight
Producer: Chloe Smith
Consulting producer: Grady Hall
Director: Rick Jacobson
Writer-creator: Steven S. DeKnight
Director of photography: Aaron Morton
Production designer: Iain Aitken
Editor: Jonno Woodford-Robinson
Music: Joseph LaDuca
Set decorator: Rosie Guthrie
Costumes: Barbara Darrash
Stunt supervisor: Allan Poppleton
Casting: Lauren Bass, Annabel Lomas, Faith Martin
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