TV

Is 'Spartacus: Blood and Sand' a Joke?

The new green-screened epic debuting on Starz may well go down as the TV series with more nudity, blood, and sex than any other in the history of television. It may also be the worst big budget series ever made.

If you were to ask someone what words first spring to mind after watching the two debut episodes, they would not be the ones that you would associate with great television. Instead of great acting, great writing, and compelling production values, with Spartacus you can't think of much beyond nudity, the irresponsible use of CGI, cardboardish writing, and blood. Lots of blood. Titanic quantities of blood. In fact, there is so much blood that it is hard not to think of the famous Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which copius amounts of blood spew from one severed arm and leg after another in absurd quanities. Was blood eve intended to be the major component of any series?

So what descriptive terms spring to mind when thinking of Spartacus?

Blood

One could also speak here of violence, but the violence in Spartacus, which is unrelenting, almost always gives way to blood, as if the point of the violence is to generate a severed artery.

We see blood gushing from wounds. We see blood that has been left to dry on on sweaty skin and unshaved stubble. We see blood gushing from severed limbs, from busted noses, from slit throats, from decapitated heads. There are times that blood is seen merely flying across the screen with no discernible source. At the climax of the big gladiator scene in the pilot episode, blood surges in a tidal wave behind the head of Spartacus, washing across the entire screen. At times the head of an actor will freeze while the blood continues to spurt across the screen. What is most distressing is there isn't the slightest exaggeration in anything that I've described here. There is so much blood in this show that it almost achieves self-parody.

Slow Motion

A sign of a weak show is how often it resorts to slow motion. A good show employs it rarely, a great show virtually never. Watch The Sopranos or Six Feet Under or even shows with a lot of action like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Battlestar Galactica and notice how rarely they use slow motion. You might see slo-mo used in a shot on Buffy to register her horror at something, like in the last few moments of "Becoming, Pt. 1," when Buffy is shown runing in slo-mo as she realizes that she has been lured away from her friends so that they can be captured or killed. The technique is used to intensify emotion or to deepen the reaction of a character, but not to focus in pornographic fashion on the infliction of a wound. Even in merely decent shows slo-mo frequently contributes a show's weakest moments. I will not defend Legend of the Seeker as a show of the first rank, but it is a serviceable guilty pleasure. Its many slow-motion sequences in fight scenes, however, lead to irritation. (I mention Buffy. Sadly, the creator of Spartacus is Steven S. DeKnight, who worked on both Buffy and Angel, though perhaps a clue to how low he was capable of descending was seen in one of the episodes he wrote when he worked on Smallville, the dreadful Buffy parody episode "Thirst," in which Lana Lang's life is endangered by a vampire named Buffy Sanders. Get it? Buffy the Vampire. Can we all just say "ugh"?)

CGI

I don't object to the heavy use of CGI in Spartacus. As in Rome, it allows the recreation of a world that no longer exists and on a scale that is not possible with normal set design. Contrast the Romes of Rome and Xena: Warrior Princess and you see how much CGI can enhance a show. What I object to in Spartacus is the gratuitous use of CGI. The problem here is that the CGI is used for sheer ornamentation, mere decoration, a means of embellishing what would otherwise have been unremarkable moments. Contrast the use of CGI here to the use of it in Battlestar Galactica. In that series the CGI was rarely used merely to fill in for the absence of anything else, never simply for ornament. Even in all its CGI moments there was great dramatic tension and a way of justifying its use; on Spartacus there is only the surface of the image, without anything underneath.

One other strange aspect to the CGI on the show is that because all the landscapes are green screened, the natural world is not depicted at all. This would not be so remarkable except that the production is based in New Zealand, perhaps the most visually arresting country in the world. Visually the film resembles 300, but such films really aren't located anywhere at all, but instead belong to the strange neverwhere that CGI can generate. One of the reasons I enjoy Legend of the Seeker is the astonishing locations available in New Zealand; they are also part of the reason that I love the Lord of the Rings films and enjoyed both Xena and Hercules (the latter two among my all-time favorite guilty pleasure shows). It is a tragedy to make a CGI series in a country that has perhaps the greatest landscapes available to any film and TV industry in the world. Productions come to New Zealand precisely because of its natural resources. Basing a production there and not utilizing its amazing exterior locations is like taking a vacation to Paris and staying inside one's hotel room the entire time.

Nudity

Surely no series in the history of television contains more gratuitous nudity than Spartacus. A host of shows contain some nudity. Granted it is not full frontal or especially revealing, but it is nudity, and it is almost always called for within in the context of the scene. When Sarah, John, and Cameron are propeled into the future in the pilot of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the time traveling premise of the show requires that they be nude. When the guiless and innocent Kyle at the beginning of Kyle XY is found walking naked in Seattle it is because he understands the concept of clothes or nudity no more than a newborn does. Having him stop to don a fashionable outfit would't have made sense. But what is remarkable about the nudity in Spartacus is that none of it -- at least none of it to date -- is necessary or justifiable within the narrative. The point is merely to have naked people. The purpose is titillation. There is unquestionably a pornographic aspect to the show. Even Tell Me You Love Me was less pornographic in its use of nudity than this series, because while the underlying purpose of that show was to titillate, it did contain as a stated goal the serious exploration of sex in relationships. In this new series the nudity is just stuck in, mere ornamentation not unlike its pornographic use of blood and CGI. While some have compared Spartacus to either Rome or 300, its gratuitous nudity reminds me more of Caligula.

Sex

You can have sex without nudity and nudity without sex, but Spartacus, in its best softcore porn fashion, emphasizes both. Even Lucy Lawless, someone I enjoyed both in Xena and BSG (not to mention in some truly funny guest roles like in last year's Flight of the Conchords), gets in on both the sex and nudity. What is distrubing about this is partly that her husband, Robert Tappert, who was the main force behind Xena, is one of the executive producers of this show. Like the nudity and the blood and the violence and the CGI, the sex on Spartacus doesn't lead to anything. The sex like all of the other elements are destination spots, not roads to some new narrative place. It feels merely thrown in, rawly inserted, instead of something that rises organically from the story. Iin a way, this makes sense, because Spartacus really doesn't have much of a story. We've all seen the movie, and we know how it proceeds and where it will end up, though this series doesn't seem intent on imitating film slavishly, or even at all (though the black guy who plays the instructor of the gladiators does bear a striking physical resemblance to Woody Strode). All of the elements stress the surface, the texture of the image. But McKnight, Tappert and the others have forgotten something crucial: not all that shines is gold.

Writing

The intensely superficial nature of Spartacus, in the fullest possible sense of superficial, as relating to surface, would be mitigated somewhat by strong writing. If anything, the writing intensifies the problem. In the first two episodes of the series, there are simply no interesting narrative moments. Every single thing that happens is not merely tired, it feels stale and overused. We've seen all this before, in countless B movies and TV miniseries. I can honestly say that in these two episodes there was not a single interesting new thing, unless you count the numerous scenes early in the pilot in which the Thracians run about in the snow in outfits that leave their arms, legs, and heads almost completely exposed. But for the most part there is a "been there, done that, over and over and over" quality to the show that dulls the brain. I'm not sure if the blood, violence, CGI, nudity, and sex drives out any meaningful writing or if all of it is intended as a substitute for it. The quality of the plotting and the dialogue could almost certainly have been generated by a gifted freshman film student; in fact, I can imagine many striving for something a bit more interesting than what we find here.

Decadence

All of this flashy superficiality leads the show to a sense of decadence. Indeed, the show intends to depict the decadence of Roman society, but in doing so is unable to avoid a decadence of its own. At the end of the two episodes, which I watched back to back, I felt sullied and demeaned. I can't deny also a certain weird fascination. After all, a show that attempts to proceed by the presentation of one memorable surface image after another can be momentarily distracting. There is something arresting about a glittering image, even if it isn't in the service of a story. But because there isn't a strong narrative or interesting characters, all the show can do is repeatedly redirect one's attention to the succession of images, to the endless procession of surfaces.

Spartacus could well represent a new low in television narrative. There have certainly been more boring series and more inept ones. But never has any TV show ever abused the visual surface of the medium to the degree that this one has. At this point I may be willing to nominate this as not merely the worst new series of the year, but perhaps the worst series ever. Certainly no large budget series has ever squandered its cash with so little to show for it. No amount of sex and nudity and blood will ever compensate for a bland and stale story.

1

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image