Saturday, December 31, 2011

I Am (Thoroughly Impressed With) Spartacus

Part of getting back into the post-Xmas swing of things is finally getting around to watching the Netflix DVDs that have been lying around while you were too busy to watch them. The long-neglected discs I currently have on top of my TV are the 2 discs of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, prequel to the seriously awesome Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

I remember when the first Spartacus series came out. I was perfectly content to ignore it, figuring I had already had my fill of gladiator-related entertainment. Besides, how good could it be if it was bankrolled by a C-list movie channel like Starz. But one of my friends whose opinion I trust said it’d definitely be worth my time. Even then, it took me a few weeks to give it a try. After finally watching the first episode, I thought, “Not bad.” It didn’t strike me as particularly great, but it was good enough to continue watching. I watched an episode every few days, and I noticed it getting progressively better.

By the fourth episode I was hooked. By the sixth episode, I was convinced it was one of the best things I’d ever seen.

At the time, I had Netflix streaming and they were putting new episodes up a couple days before they actually aired, on Fridays I think. Throughout the week, I would get so excited for a new episode, and every Friday was like Christmas. I would text my friend on those mornings, full of unbridled enthusiasm: “New Spartacus episode!!! Aw yeah!!!”

Ever since the series wrapped up, I’ve been singing its praises to anyone who will listen. The thing I tell everyone is that it’s the best thing I’ve seen on a TV screen in some time; it’s better than any movie, or TV show, or video game, or sporting event I’ve witnessed in the last two or three years.
It’s actually kind of hard to explain what makes it so good. Yes, there’s lots of violence and sex. It’s also full of good acting and good writing, and it has a good story, and it looks great. And it is absolutely fearless in the way it will do anything to keep you on the edge of your seat, even kill off characters you’d swear were integral to the show.
But really, there’s lots of violence and sex. And it’s AWESOME.
I know saying that makes me sound like a simple-minded Neanderthal. But in my defense, popular entertainment has been trading on those two things since time immemorial. From Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet, to Bogart telling Bergman they’ll always have Paris and Cagney screaming he’s on top of the world, to Autobots vs. Decepticons and the latest Hanks-Roberts vehicle. On some basic level, we find sex and violence thrilling. It’s like hardwired into us or something.
Spartacus taps into those two things on some visceral level. It’s not that it’s “real”—in fact, it’s kind of over-the-top—but their approach to it seems remarkably pure and unadulterated, and for some reason it’s crazy fun. Listen, I don’t know how they did it . . . all I know is that it’s ridiculously entertaining.
After having such a great viewing experience with the first series, I resisted watching Gods of the Arena. I was afraid they wouldn’t be able to capture lightning in a bottle twice, but I was even more disappointed (and heartbroken) about the absence of Andy Whitfield, who played Spartacus. After the first season, he died suddenly of cancer. Of all the remembrances in all the In Memoriams coming out these days, Whitfield’s makes me the saddest.
Andy Whitfield R.I.P.
He brought something special to the Spartacus character, a sensitivity and intelligence that made you totally sympathetic to his plight. The show would clearly not be as good without him. I was so excited to see season 2, but after Whitfield died I was markedly less so.

But on a happier note, I’ve watched 3 episodes of Gods of the Arena, and it is quite good. There are moments that recapture the initial thrill I felt watching the first Spartacus series. The writing remains sharp. The visuals are as lush as ever. And Batiatus remains the role John Hannah was born to play.
And every so often they throw in a brutal gladiator fight or a ménage à trois. You might not even realize how much you want to see those things until you start watching the show.
"Jupiter's Cock!"

1 comment:

  1. "ménage à trois"...yup!

    I have not seen the show so I'm not making a comment about "it" but more a comment of the lack of this "really good" made for television...television. Major networks can't deliver anything good these days. "Curb" (HBO), "Breaking Bad" (AMC), and this show your pushing on us like a street thug, hustler handling "the goods". Why is this? For how long have networks been keeping great television from us (in favor of multi-colored sweater wearers, bar stool dwellers, and cops/hospital shows...Oh God, one as bad as the next)? We never had the outlet for the other(s), so all these other options seemed like heaven sent packaged sensibility. When in fact, they've always been advertisers wet dreams. Well, the blue hairs of old that held the television networks and indeed the adertisers of the world to some biblical high moral ground have been checking on out and the pay off is (for you and I)more, better, real, honest, and true to this life cable television. Networks are still chasing dollars (all are...right?), but cable can just ask for ad dollars based on whay you ask? Demographics! It's the 20 to 30 somethings that are the shot callers now. Enjoy it... (torches get handed down), Elden