This weekend the Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend and I sat down to watch the first episode of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, the new series from cable station Starz (you can watch episode one online here). We've been anticipating the show's debut for some time now because of Lucy Lawless's involvement. Because the hype machine for this series has been cranked very high as of late, it was a relief to finally have the episode in front of us so we could judge the program for ourselves.
In addition to all the publicity about the show's bloodiness, sex and the nudity, there have been several "false leads" about the series that had us wondering what Spartacus would really be like. To begin with, Spartacus the TV show isn't a remake of Spartacus the 1960 movie, though it took awhile for us to sort that out. Many of the character names are the same, yet the characters themselves differ. The storylines are distinct as well.
More confusion came from parallels to the movie 300, and many TV critics compared and contrasted Spartacus and 300 in early reviews. This concerned me, as I found 300 to be irredeemably racist and have assigned it a top spot on my list of the worst movies I've ever seen.
I do think 300 has some value as a teaching tool; it certainly deserves a place on any curriculuum addressing the issue of fascist aesthetics. Spartacus's resemblance to 300 is more conceptual, as in "it's 300's CGI effects meets Rome's plotting," rather than a real attempt to emulate that loathsome movie.
Spartacus's first episode begins with a clash between the Thracian people and the army of Rome, starting with the Thracians' perspective. Rome demands that the Thracians join with their army to repel approaching enemy forces. The man who we will later know as Spartacus (played by Andy Whitfield) steps forward to bargain with the Roman representative on behalf of Thrace.
The Thracians then enter into an uneasy alliance with the Romans. The Thracian fighters resent the Romans because they are made to do most of the fighting, and we learn that Spartacus pines for his wife, Sura (Erin Cummings), back home. Before long, the Romans break their agreement with the Thracians, leading to a fight that leaves several of the Thracians, including Spartacus, captive and in chains.
Some critics have argued that Spartacus's storyline bears a close resemblance to Gladiator. Perhaps in outline. But after having seen the first episode, I believe the film that has inspired Spartacus is Carrie. When I saw the first battle scene where the Thracian fighters' bodies are streaked with blood and big clots of blood are matting down their hair, my mind immediately went to the image of Sissy Spacek covered in a bucket of blood.
As men hacked off enemy limbs with fierce abandon, a thick splotch of blood splattered and covered a third of the screen. I'm sure the effect the show was going for was something hypermale and ultraviolent but I thought it was a neat visual proof that when you push the representation of masculinity too far you sometimes wind up producing its exact opposite. The menstruality of it all made me howl with laughter.
I'm a fan of video and tabletop strategy games, so I enjoyed seeing the fight scenes I mostly didn't get to see in Rome. I especially liked the detail shown on the armour and weaponry in the fight scenes. I was also happy to see a woman, Sura, fighting capably with a sword in the first episode. I wasn't expecting to see a woman fighting but I hope it continues.
Although Spartacus is being touted for its extensive use of CGI, I thought one of the most effective sequences was a fast-moving series of shots representing the circumstances of Spartacus's captivity. It was an efficient way to move the story along, but the images were powerful and precise in evoking horror.
Andy Whitfield brings intensity to his role as Spartacus, as well as a fine body for those men and women who appreciate such things. I point you in the direction of Brent Hartinger's review on AfterElton.com for a thorough loincloth report and further thoughts on the show from a gay male's perspective.
As a lesbian, my sights are solidly focused on the presence of Lucy Lawless in the cast playing the sexually ravenous Roman Lucretia. I experienced a mixed jumble of feelings when I first heard Lawless would be appearing in the series. I was thrilled to hear Lucy Lawless would be on TV again regularly, but ambivalent about the role. It seems like a cruel irony that this beneficent idol of lesbians everywhere is returning to the screen in a role where she'll be featured in the buff shagging one male gladiator after another. Truthfully, it makes one question God's intent.
Lawless did not appear much in the first episode, so I have yet to resolve my feelings one way or another. But her role sounds like a good one, and hopefully it will wind up being one more reason--along with the great fighting and the Roman setting--for me to continue watching and enjoying Spartacus.