With the season premiere of Spartacus Vengeance coming up fast, I feel I need to generate some excitement around here and share this giddiness that has taken over me since watching the episode (offered online at the Starz website). I will post no spoilers. I haven't championed a show this hard since Firefly years and years ago, and the long-anticipated premiere of Spartacus dredged up feelings in me that I haven't experienced since I watched the credits cross-fade in on the last episode of Gods of the Arena, nearly a year ago. And I assure you, that had nothing to do with the giant, throbbing erection I experienced then, too. (Just kidding. Kind of. Oh look over there... more text!)
Spartacus gets a bad rap. It's hard to approach the show, I'll admit, and these 300-esque trailers certainly don't help either. When it comes down to it, when you try to paraphrase the show's premise and sell it to your friends (or acquaintances) and then you go all stuttery, you ultimately end up saying: "Semi-naked dudes hack off limbs and stab the shit out of each other, and women show their tits." Sometimes that's enough. If that does it for you, I can't think of a reason why you aren't watching this show already. However, most of the time, they will look at you funny. Then you try to backpedal and think of a better synopsis, but it's too late. Irreparable damage is already done. Conversation moves forward and leaves you and Spartacus behind. Despite all justification, though, that's what Spartacus is at its core: an extremely stylised story of revenge, and the show needs its graphic violence and sexual content. I certainly couldn't think of the brand any other way.
But what many people fail to mention is the tightly wound story of betrayal, conspiracy, and treachery interwoven throughout all of the eye-candy. Spartacus is essentially a classic hero protagonist, as his motivations are very clear from the onset, and the rest of the story is about watching, breathless, as he deals with insurmountable obstacles in his way. A true underdog story. But the thing is, contemporary audiences love the idea of the anti-hero. A dark knight, if you will. While we know Spartacus is the "good guy", and he will of course do good things, this is totally offset by the scenes of combat. It's hard-hitting, gut-wrenching stuff. And believe me, Spartacus has to do some nasty shit to survive the world he is thrust in. This is most apparent when, failing to meet expectations, Spartacus is forced into a dirty, after-hours, underground fighting ring in Episode 4 of Blood and Sand "The Thing in the Pit" (what I believe to be the turning point of the series, where shit totally gets real). From here on, it's a story of bitter-sweet triumph: Fantastic, brutal scenes of gladiator fights that capture the feel of an exhilarating sporting event, complete with the frenzy of roaring crowds. Spartacus fights to be reunited with his wife, and he strikes up a mutually beneficial agreement with the owner of the ludus, the scheming Quintus Batiatus (played brilliantly by John Hannah): the return of his wife, for his continued cooperation.
Batiatus, I'm convinced, is one of the greater villains ever written and portrayed in a television series. There are not many characters that straddle the line between antagonist and protagonist as Batiatus does. For all the wrong he does to Spartacus, he himself is an underdog in his own way. If the show teaches us anything, it's that the Roman elite/aristocrats are a bunch of sick, stuck-up, assholes, and you end up wanting Batiatus to succeed in his endeavours as much as you want Spartacus to carry out his merciless, crushing revenge on his oppressors. Batiatus also serves as the closest thing to comic relief on the show, and Hannah's deliveries of choice lines involving creative usage of the word "cock" are sometimes immediately offset by how terrifying he can become in the next scene. I would almost liken him to Gustavo Fring from Breaking Bad. We see from the man's demeanour how dangerous he can be--exemplified in the fourth season opener "Box Cutter", and then we are given insight into his past, the dealings with the cartel, making him slightly more sympathetic as a villain. But, in my opinion, at no point do we want Gus to accomplish his goals because he had become as powerful as his enemies, so his later victory felt hollow. Spartacus, on the other hand, does balls-to-the-wall revenge better than anything I've seen in recent times. When characters cross characters, you know they are going to get theirs... it's just a matter of how and when. And it's a great feeling when it happens.
Spartacus thrives on dramatic build-up and excels at sweet, sweet gratification. I can't say this enough. It is critical to a story that deals so much with backstabbing and politics more than its description lets on. If I could compare it to Game of Thrones, there are things Spartacus does that makes it a more enjoyable watch, and it's all about the balance of build-up and release (yes, I know it sounds dirty). If you take your viewers' time, you'd damn well reward them for it. From what I know of A Song of Ice And Fire, while it is stupendously intense at parts, I am displeased with how things will turn out for some characters. While it makes for an interesting world, and a very dark, morally grey take on fantasy, it's also very frustrating. Season 1 of Game of Thrones has been, as far as I recall, all build-up... take, take, and take. There has not been a flat-out hurrah moment for characters/factions that I actually like, and knowing a little more than I should, there won't really be. I know aficionados out there will turn up their noses and vehemently say "GRRM writes for adults, it is sophisticated, you fucking plebeian." Of course. It's still quality television, but there's only so much you can throw at your audience before they eventually get fed up. You're asking for their time, they should get something out of it after a while.
There's also the attitude many folks have regarding Spartacus, thinking it's a "stupid" show only for gore-junkies and frat boys. Get past the mutilation and the breasts (and some dong), and you'll find that it really isn't. It's faster paced and less subtle at times, but tension and scheming is still very much present. I was talking to a classmate about TV shows once, and from this conversation, something dawned on me. I'm generally anti-hipser or anti-art snob, but when I heard this guy go on about television series that I really like (Firefly, The Wire), applying terms like auteurist theory and refusing to mention the shows by name, instead referring to them only as work by Whedon or David Simon, I started liking my favourite shows a lot less... I realise now that that way of thinking could, quite possibly, make me the biggest hipster out there. But I'm compelled to defend Spartacus the more it gets denounced as a crappy show. Sorry.
At this point, I've watched Blood and Sand, and Gods of the Area each twice. Once on my own, and once with a friend. Keep in mind, this guy is my regular Saints Row 2/3 co-op buddy as well, so I think you can understand where this is coming from. Both experiences, solo and co-op, are radically different. Same goes for Spartacus. You must be thinking, games and television shows can't be held up to the same standards, you're so full of shit! Reviewers (one Mr. Jeff Gerstmann, or Screened's own Alex Navarro, among others) laud Saints Row The Third for making the sandbox genre *fun* when recent games are falling into a trend and starting to take themselves a little too seriously. But scripted television drama needs its floppy, dildo bat-wielding equivalent sometimes, in the same way we enjoy Hobo With A Shotgun or the godawful-hilariously-bad Bitch Slap!, but classifying Spartacus as a "B-movie" TV show is doing it a huge disservice. Style is still one of the most important facets of the show, but to say it lacks substance is a tragically misinformed statement. You can feel high and mighty watching more serious dramas (don't get me wrong, I do feel high and mighty sometimes too), just don't dismiss Spartacus' merits.
Spartacus Vengeance starts Friday on Starz at 10PM and does not fail to deliver. The stakes are as high as ever, and the over-the-top violence and crazy sexual spectacles return, firing on all cylinders. Liam McIntyre does an admirable job as Andy Whitfield's replacement, so drop any concerns you may have. Hope you all tune in, or just start watching the series. After waiting for about a year for the show to come back, I can definitely say that watching the episode was a cathartic experience from start to finish. There was a huge shit-eating grin on my face after it was done... and it really is like a drug. It appeals to the animalistic side of people, where they enjoy watching dudes getting slaughtered in some of the most ridiculous, painful ways, and really, really frightening (not to mention horrifically kinky) orgy scenes.