I approached Spartacus: Gods of the Arena with trepidation: I had never seen Season One of Spartacus (the one called Blood and Sand), and I hate to walk into something halfway through. But I’m a sucker for Roman stuff, and I’m still missing HBO’s Rome, and I’d heard enough about Starz’s over-the-top lunacy to be intrigued by the show. Besides, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is a prequel to Season One, taking place five years before the events of Bood and Sand. Surely I could keep up with events that hadn’t even happened yet?
The good news is: yup, I could. No doubt there are pleasures to be had if you’re a fan of the original show—seeing critical characters developing at earlier moments in their lives—but for newcomers to the series, who have nothing invested in these characters, there’s more than enough going on to make the story compelling.
There’s one major caveat to this: the first two minutes of the first episode provide a quick catch-up guide to the key events of Season One—including who died at the end (rather a major spoiler). Cover your eyes and mute the volume if you don’t know the outcome already, and after that you’re good to go. (The same is true for the last two minutes of the final episode, alas.)
That technicality aside—holy smoke, this thing is gonzo-batshit-crazy in just about every way imaginable. Of course, so were the Romans themselves, so the aesthetic fits nicely. Gladitorial battles—and there are plenty of them—feature plenty of super-slow-motion leaps and hacks and stabs, blood splashes and airborne teeth. The sex scenes are equally animalistic—though no airborne teeth, thank God—and the dialogue seems to made up of 40 percent obscenitites. There’s an inordinate amount of references to “fawking” and “cawk.” In other words, it’s my 16-year-old self’s idea of a perfect movie—and it’s not even a movie! It’s a TV show that goes on and on and on!
Performances are consistently strong throughout. John Hannah plays Batiatus, the son of a famed yet overbearing gladiator-trainer (dominus) who is, thankfully, out of the picture. Batiatus hankers after wealth and position but can only get that through the glory of his gladiators, who are kept from prominance in the games by the wily and powerful Tullius (Stephen Lovatt) and Vettius (Gareth Williams—think Draco Malfoy in a toga). Batiatus’s schemings to elevate his house and reputation form the central arc of the story, and lead, directly and indirectly, to many woeful consequences.
Lucy Lawless, aka Xena, Warrior Princess, plays Batiatus’s wife, a sort of Lady-Macbeth-in-training who undergoes a frightening metamorphosis even as we watch. Then there are the gladiators: Fabio lookalike and local hotshot Gannicus, played by Dustin Clare; gruff Gaul Crixus (Manu Bennett); dignified Oenamaus (Peter Mensah); and many more. The series skillfully interweaves multiple levels of Roman society—nobles, tradesmen, gladiators, slaves—without feeling jumbled or confused. These strata come together in unexpected, often unfortunate ways, and yet the storytelling remains surprisingly organic.
And yes, there’s tons of sex. And yes, there’s an inordinate amount of violence, including significant amounts of violence against women. And have I mentioned the cursing? Right. So if any of this puts you off, this is definitely a series to steer clear of.
If you’re not put off, then you’re likely to be hankering for more. This six-episode prequel was shot after the announcement that Spartacus star Andy Whitfield had been diagnozed with cancer; the producers responded with this stopgap prequel before Season Two was officially announced. As stopgaps go, it’s a solid piece of work, but frankly there is enough drama, conniving and sheer visceral action to have filled another six episodes.
The DVD is of course immaculate, with CGI-tweaked battle scenes and an extraordinarily heightened visual sense—think 300, only more so. Skies are richly textured, sounds are jarring, slow- and fast-motion bits are intercut to maximize the violence. (Have I mentioned this is violent? Hoo boy.)
The DVD boasts an impressive array of extras, none of which is vital, but many of which are diverting enough. These include a six-minute featurette showing backstage scenes with Lucy Lawless (who reveals herself to be quite mischievous) and another six-minute analysis of episod six’s climctic battle scene. These and the other features total roughly an hour of bonus material, and include a fascinating look at how the post-production effects are added (blood spatters, exterior sets, and sound). Of course, no record of ancient Roman life would be complete without a blooper reel.
Not for the weak of stomach, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena nonetheless grips the viewer with its visceral depictions of a brutal world full of brute-like people doing brutish things. Someone else will have to write the doctoral thesis on why so many viewers continue to find such spectacle entertaining. For now, the majority of us will—like the Romans—sit back and enjoy the circus.