Reviews

This Ain't Your Dad's 'I, Claudius': 'Spartacus: Gods of the Arena'

Holy smoke, this thing is gonzo-batshit-crazy in just about every way imaginable.


Spartacus: Gods of the Arena

Distributor: Anchor Bay
Cast: John Hannah, Peter Mensah, Dustin Clare, Lucy Lawless
Network: Starz
Release date: 2011-09-13
Amazon

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.

7

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

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

rating-image