Starz ‘Spartacus: Blood and Sand’ changes the game for smallscreen drama

Starz "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" is a riveting grab you by the neck (and other parts of the anatomy) ride back during the hedonistic glorious days of ancient Rome, and all the period trappings. <P></P> <P>Those who are unaware of the bloodlust of the Romans and the expendable nature of humanity, bartered and used by those who had wealth and power, will be schooled quickly on how inequitable life was for so many during the reign of Rome (women and slaves of both genders and all races).  </P> <P>“Spartacus” producers kept to the true to life details.  </P> <P>***image3:center***</P> <P>Showrunner Steven DeKnight shared with M&C that these crucial facts color his lusty, brutal tale of survival and revenge. “Once I started researching Spartacus, I was amazed at how little I actually knew.  And everything  knew came from the Stanley Kubrick movie, which I loved and adored as a kid, and I went back to it and saw it again and loved it all over again.  But I was really surprised once I started researching Spartacus is practically nothing is known about the man.  There are only bits and fragments, mostly from Plutarch and Appian with very little detail about him before he broke out of the gladiator school.  So it really opened it up for us to take those little bits and pieces and put together a completely new story with some basis of history, and that’s where we are now.”</P> <P>You will see many firsts on Starz network’s new offering at 10 p.m. EST Friday, January 22, as this new action-adventure series is relentless, powerful and builds in each episode nuanced storylines drawing you into a world of pain, political cunning and honor.  </P><EMBED src= width=560 height=340 type=application/x-shockwave-flash allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true"></EMBED> <P>It is decidedly masculine in tone, but not inaccessible to a female audience.  But be forewarned: The Gilmore Girls it ain’t. </P> <P>Our story centers on the Thracian slave who dared to buck Rome in his small village.  He pays a heavy consequence for his impudence, including being ripped from his wife and all he knows.  </P> <P>Now condemned to fight for Rome’s pleasure, newcomer Andy Whitfield is our Spartacus, chained, beaten and property to be molded at the ludus, a school / prison for Gladiators that makes military boot camp look like a day at the races.<BR>The setting is first century B.C. </P> <P>And thanks to brilliant digital intermediate artists who painstakingly reshape and paint each frame surrounding our green-screened actors, we watch the action unfold against hyper-realistic colorized backdrops that are eerily hypnotic, despite the raw brutality we are often witnessing. </P> <P>It’s an odd artistic accomplishment, juxtaposed beauty and human suffering rendered in distinct palettes, similar to the effects seen in “300” and “Sin City,” but the colors and lighting for each scene are unique to this particular tale of woe and resurrection of the flesh and spirit.  </P> <P>The writers have set the stage for our Spartacus, forced into a contentious chain-ganged brotherhood of buff warriors who cover the sexual preference spectrum and understand the game.  There are little to no loyalties and the only thing prized is the end accomplishment, the victory after the battle.  In this arena the men know you are only as good as your last exhibition.  </P> <P>Better enjoy the downtime offered by your masters with gusto.  And boy, do the gladiators enjoy their downtime.</P> <P>The sexual part of the series is all contextual and reveal the benefits of upper class life versus the trade classes.  No sex scenes are gratuitous as they show the power dynamics between the performing victors and their gifted conquests, the owners and their slaves.</P> <P>Producer Rob Tapert explained to M&C that the intent was to stay true to the era of violence that was ancient Rome.  "Other than the violence, the other part of this was the sexuality of the times; it was a very different kind of sexual feeling, particularly with the slave class where it was completely acceptable to have sex with your slaves, even inside a marriage.  Usually it was fine for a man to have sex with female slaves and sometimes the male slaves.  It was a little bit trickier for the woman, but we don’t want to shy away from either the sexuality or the violence of the period.  We want it to come from the story that if this story leads us to an extremely violent incident, we want to be able to show it and the same thing sexually.”</P> <P>The most prominent female role witnesses so far (based on four episodes viewed) is the character of Batiatus’ (John Hannah) wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) who rocks a mean merkin and gets down with the helping hands of her own slave for some serious foreplay in one scene that shows our Lucretia and Batiatus getting warmed up prior their trysting.</P> <P>At the recent winter press tour for TV critics, Lucy Lawless spoke in panel with her castmates and producers of the series and joked about that particular scene and one later with IIithyia (played by Viva Bianca), and how she managed having her slaves attend her in this intimate way.  “The second time I was also stressed out, but we figured out right through Viva and I and everybody together how we had to proceed.  There had to be a protocol about doing all these scenes where you marked it out well in advance, you had all your boundaries.  Everything is very safe, and there was never skin-on-skin contact. No matter what you think you’re seeing, you ain’t.”</P> <P>Lawless also had the additional benefit of having the production film in her native New Zealand.</P> <P>Now, a lot has been written and hyped about our hero Spartacus, played by the new British hunk, Andy Whitfield.  He does a fine job and has mastered the look of a lean and more realistic warrior in build than his nemesis in the ludus, Crixus (Manu Bennett) who looks pumped and rounded in musculature for a top-trained warrior who seemingly existed on gruel and bread scraps. </P> <P>As I watched this series, it occurred to me that the scenes where the ludus headmaster Doctore (Peter Mensah) was in frame, he stole the moment.  Each episode, Mensah’s character became more focal in the story of Spartacus, and his hard exterior is nuanced, moments of fraternal guidance nudge through, and we see he is quietly impressed by Spartacus’ heart and ability to survive a punishment that was meant to kill him.  Mensah is my favorite player thus far in this talented ensemble.</P> <P>Hannah also shines as clever Batiatus, who uses the leverage of Spartacus’ beloved wife, Sura (Erin Cummings), and the promise of reuniting them to drive his latest investment to kill like no other in the arenas of blood sport.  He and his wife Lucretia are quite a pair of climbers not content to be sidelined by patrician Rome.</P> <P>Hannah too, spoke at the TCA’s and was effusive about the role and the project.  “I think also as an artist that you constantly want to diversify and stretch yourself and find new challenges, and from the moment I read this script, I’d never read anything like it, not only in the world that it creates, but in the way that the characters talk to each other and they express themselves and the constraints of the world that existed then.  So the fact that there were no car chases and no policemen and no doctors and no lawyers was just manna from heaven for me. It was a no-brainer when that call came because you don’t get work like this very often.”</P> <P>There is a slow start to the character development for the series, but please be patient, epics of this scope take a bit of time to fill in and color, and you are in good hands with producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert.  </P> <P>Showrunner Steven DeKnight is nothing but passionate about his reimagined tale of a slave-made-legend, and they have amassed a cast that delivers strong performances and together create a new world that is not “Rome,” not “300” nor “Gladiator,” but uniquely theirs.</P> <P>It’s bloody good fare for a Friday night!</P> <P> </P><EMBED src= width=425 height=344 type=application/x-shockwave-flash allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true"></EMBED> <P> </P>Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.