Lots of Starz in their eyes

Net has high hopes for celeb-filled 'Case,' violence-laden 'Spartacus'

While many networks are decreasing their presence at the Television Critics Assn.'s winter press tour, premium cable channel Starz presented more shows than ever before as part of its scripted programming expansion.

Starz held sessions for three shows Saturday and said its first comedy block will premiere March 20.

"Traditionally known for our robust movie lineup, we have taken bold and deliberate steps to expand our original series," Starz president and CEO Bill Myers said. "In 2009, we are committed to expand our presence in originals."

The network's comedy lineup includes the second season of the improvisational series "Head Case" and the debut of "Party Down," about a Hollywood catering comedy.

The network hopes "Case" will reach a larger audience this year. In the vein of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the show has lined up such attention-getting guest stars as Jerry Seinfeld, Tori Spelling, Geri Halliwell and Hugh Hefner.

Myers said no decision has been made on whether the network's modestly received first drama series, "Crash," will return for another season. But Starz's second drama effort, a remake of the Roman slave revolt tale "Spartacus," should have little trouble getting attention.

Producers Rob Tapert and Steven S. DeKnight said they see an opportunity for an intensely graphic action-drama series in the TV universe and promise "a totally R-rated, hard, hard show."

"Much like '300,' there will be a visual beauty to the way it is shot," showrunner DeKnight said. "There's an ode to violence ... there are decapitations, people being split in half. … We don't want to shy away from violence or sexuality. The beauty of being on premium cable is there is no story we can't tell."

The 100% greenscreen production will "never go outside" and take visual inspiration from the comic-book styling of movies like "Sin City." But the producers said they'll have to find a fresh balance between realism and style, saying that watching a landscape as severely stark as "300" could be wearisome week after week.

"It won't be intensely monochromatic," said executive producer Tapert, who described the series as " 'Gladiator' meets 'Deadwood.' " "We will make sure the process serves the storytelling, and not the other way around."

Another inspiration is HBO's "Rome," though producers say their take on the ancient civilization will include "more testosterone."

"There's a gladiator fight in the first season of 'Rome' that I leaped off my couch when I saw it," DeKnight said. "That will be more like what 'Spartacus' will be like."

Starz plans to debut "Spartacus" in the fall, but there's one significant element lacking that even the best CGI can't fix: there's no lead actor. Producers say they're searching for the ideal performer and hope to find an "undiscovered action star" to fill the role. (partialdiff)