Monday, June 3, 2013

Spartacus: A Series You Should Watch!

 I'm currently working my way through Spartacus: War of the Damned from STARZ.  If you haven't heard of it, Spartacus started a few years ago that looked like a 300 rip off because of its use of CGI blood, slow-motion shots, and fit bare-chested men.    I caught the first two seasons, Blood and Sand and Gods of the Arena on Netflix, and was hooked in by the weaving storylines and well developed characters.  All the action blood didn't hurt either.  If you're a fan of 300 or HBO's ROME, Spartacus is a good mixture of both, minus the larger budgets.  I'll talk about why you should take a look at the series and move my way towards the present series War of the Damned.

The first series launched in 2010 starring Andy Whitfield (Spartacus), Lucy Lawless (Lucretia), and John Hannah (Batiatus).  This first series followed Spartacus' capture and enslavement and rise as Gladiator.  What was neat about this season was seeing Spartacus build his resolve against the Romans through his mistreatment and betrayal, all of which came from Batiatus and his wife Lucretia.  John Hannah and Lucy Lawless were really fun to watch. Not only were they manipulating their gladiators against each other, but they were also using their gladiator's successes and failures in the arena as leverage in the Roman politcal world.  We were frequently visited by Roman senators and their wives, and we frequently saw how the slaves were used as entertainment for their masters.  Often to the slave's embarassment, or occasionally, pleasure.  This series gave us a lot of different characters to fall in love with. We had our hero Spartacus, his friend Varro, the head slave Oenomaus, and the rival Crixus.  In any episode some or all of these characters could clash or work together, mostly to serve their own goals.  I came into it thinking it was a cheap 300 knock-off but left wanting more, especially after the finale here.

Spartacus' star, Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and the series was put on pause to allow the actor to recover.  Unfortunately, Andy Whitfield passed away in 2011 and Spartacus, now STARZ's first hit series, needed to be recast.   In the meantime, STARZ gave us a six episode prequel series entitled Spartacus: Gods of the Arena to tide over fans.  This short series showed us the rise of the house of Batiatus and his Gladiators, thanks to a new character, Gannicus.  We saw Oenomaus become the head gladiator/trainer and Crixus' arrival into slavery, similar to Spartacus' in the first series, although they chose separate paths and approaches to it.  Part of the fun of this series is our new gladiator, Gannicus, as he is totally opposite of Spartacus. Gannicus is not interested in freedom, only glory, women, wine and food. His victories in the arena grant him this until he falls in love with Oenomaus' wife, who also happens to be his best friend. Whoops!  We also get a good dose of the Roman political maneuvering from Lucretia and Batiatus.  When we join them here, Batiatus is not the head of the house, his father is. So we see his struggle with his father's decisions as Batiatus maneuvers to undermine them.  All in all this was not as good as the first season, but it was an enjoyable placeholder until we got a full second season.

The second series, Spartacus: Vengence premiered and gave us a new Spartacus after Andy Whitfield's passing.  Stepping into the role was Liam McIntyre.  STARZ promoted a lot that Andy Whitfield was able to see Liam's audition, after it became clear he would not be able to act in the show any longer, and was so pleased with Liam's audition he gave him his blessing to carry Spartacus forward.  It is hard to say who is the better Spartacus, although now, Liam has been in the role longer than Andy Whitfield. I think the large shift in the tone of Vengence helped eliminate comparisons between the two actors.  Vengence finds our former slaves on the run from the Romans, wreaking havoc while formulating what will become a large rebellion in War of the Damned.  What helped keep Spartacus on track, after losing and replacing its main actor, was the large number of returning cast members. We still had Crixus, Oenomaus, Lucretia, and Ashur to keep the series along.  Seeing the old faces alongside McIntyre's helped improve his performance, I think.

The third and final series, Spartacus: War of the Damned finds Spartacus' army growing by the day and wreaking havoc on the Roman countryside.  It suffers a little because we no longer have Lucy Lawless' character in the series, but she was one of my favorites.  Spartacus' army eventually takes over a whole Roman city, and either enslaving the Romans or killing them. Watching this role reversal of the first season is interesting, it brings up strong feelings from Crixus and Spartacus, now again at opposing sides after they formed a strong bond in Vengence.  One of the best things about Spartacus is the character of Crixus, played by Manu Bennett. He starts out as the reigning champion gladiator and Spartacus' rival, and then his friend and second-in-command, and then back to sometimes rival.  It doesn't feel forced, as what drives them apart are differing opinions on where to take the slave army, long term.  Crixus wants to strike at Rome, while Spartacus seeks true freedom.  Also interesting this series is the addition of Marcus Crassus our new Roman bad guy, as well as Julius Caesar, who infiltrates the slave-city for the first few episodes.  I don't know if that is historically accurate, but it certainly build Caesar as a cunning man, which kind of connects to him in HBO's ROME.  I feel like I should go watch that again after I finish War of the Damned just to continue Caesar's story.

If you like sword and sandals stories, sword fights, beautiful women, beautiful men, political dramas, family dramas, and can stand a little blood, sex, and gore, then definitely give Spartacus a shot in your Netflix DVD queue or buy the series from wherever you buy your content.  It is worth your investment, and you won't question whether or not to continue after you finish the first series Blood and Sand. I promise, Scout's Honor!


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