LOS ANGELES — There’s no confusing Starz’s “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” with Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”
In the pay TV channel’s adaptation of the tale of the rebel Roman slave, the battle cries from the Classical Age have, well, a distinctly 21st century ring (“My boot will meet your ass in the afterlife!”). The sexual intrigue seems lifted right out of a VH1 dating show (when a socialite decides to buy one of the gladiators-in-training, the men are ordered to drop their loincloths so she can make an informed choice). Then there’s the graphic, slo-mo violence (including a severed, flying head that would impress Quentin Tarantino).
With 1.1 million viewers, “Spartacus” is a home run for the cable channel, which is available in a modest 17 million homes. Long overshadowed by rivals HBO and Showtime, Starz has seen the sword-and-sandal melodrama become its first original series hit.
“Spartacus’” campy, B-movie style is not in line with the reputation of Chief Executive Chris Albrecht, the former HBO head who shepherded the high-brow dramas “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” but he’s happy to take the show’s lead and run with it.
“It’s a different take on a story that’s been pretty familiar,” Albrecht said. The show’s growing ratings “have made me think about a lot of stuff. I thought, ‘Wow, we could do a whole network like this and it would be different.’ It’s not a bad place to start in terms of restarting the brand.”
In the job only two months — “Spartacus” was developed under the previous management — Albrecht has been tasked by Starz’s owner Liberty Media Corp. to turn the No. 3 pay cable network into more than just a channel that recycles Hollywood movies.
The makers of “Spartacus,” Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi, had produced similar tongue-in-cheek epics “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and “Xena: Warrior Princess,” and brought the show to Starz after NBC passed. Starz previously had launched only one drama, adapted from the Oscar-winning film “Crash.” Audiences didn’t take to the dark series, and it was canceled after two seasons.
Tapert and Raimi’s “Spartacus,” in contrast, is a gore-and-sex spectacle revolving around the early life of the gladiator hero made famous by Kirk Douglas in the 1960 epic of the same name. The result is part “300,” part Harlequin bodice-ripper and part soft-core porn. The series’ diverse viewership includes fan boys, middle-age adults and even a cult following in the gay community. Afterelton.com, a gay-oriented entertainment Web site, writes glowingly about the show.
Executive producer and head writer Steven S. DeKnight describes “Spartacus” as “Shakespeare lite,” an R-rated soap opera romp where the period dialogue is liberally salted with four-letter words. (DeKnight maintains that the cursing has been approved by historians who say the expletives were in use in the 1st century BC).
“I think some people were thrown by the fact that we are not trying to be a stately drama,” DeKnight said. “But (pay cable shows) have become more distant and esoteric. As much as I love them, it is a chore to watch them. ‘Spartacus’ is a bit of a throwback.”
The contrast is intentional.
“That made sense for Starz,” said William Hamm, the network’s executive vice president of creative development. “We didn’t want to follow HBO’s ‘Rome.’ This sounded nothing like it. It sounded like an action show.” Starz bought 13 episodes without even a pilot.
Once they saw footage from the first episodes, Starz executives thought they might be on to something and committed to a second season before the first had even premiered.
For Starz, which owns, produces and will internationally distribute the show, production costs are manageable. With per-episode costs pegged at about $2 million, the show holds down expenses by shooting in New Zealand, which offers tax incentives. Shooting elsewhere would probably double costs, said Stephen Shelanski, Starz’s executive vice president of programming.
And with the focus on action, Shelanski said, “Spartacus” should sell well in overseas markets.
The question now, unfortunately, is when “Spartacus” will be able to continue filming. Plans for a second season have been delayed because the show’s star, Andy Whitfield, was recently diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
The success of “Spartacus” now has Albrecht thinking that familiar properties may be the way to go for Starz. On Monday, Starz unveiled plans to mine the mists of medieval times with its version of “Camelot,” based on Thomas Malory’s 15th century romance, “Le Morte d’Arthur.” This month, Albrecht bought the eight-hour fantasy series “Pillars of Earth,” a $40-million budget costume drama set in the 12th century starring Ian McShane based on the best-selling book. It premieres in July.
And if Starz, which had revenues of $1.2 billion last year, can forge a new identity by playing — like the Roman gladiators — to the baying crowd, so much the better.
“There’s value in thinking about things that are ... fun,” Albrecht said. “The idea of being entertained, I think, will be held up as valuable.”