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Spartacus: Blood and Sand


Many of the silver screen's most famous stars--both in front of and behind the camera--have been involved in Roman entertainment offerings: Charlton Heston, Elizabeth Taylor, Kirk Douglas, Russell Crowe, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Frank Miller are just a few. Heck, even Shakespeare couldn't resist the appeal of those crazy ancient Italians. And if Rome means popularity, why shouldn't Starz, long considered the weakest of the premium movie channels, cash in on the phenomenon, too--while at the same time creating competition for rivals HBO and Showtime?

The answer: no reason at all, of course.

In January, Starz unveiled what might become the jewel of its network, Spartacus: Blood and Sand. With mountains of special effects yet few famous actors in play, 2010's version of the slave-turned-gladiator story seems only vaguely reminiscent of the 184-minute epic of 1960. Gone are the nuanced performance by Douglas and the subtle camera angles of director Kubrick. Instead, viewers are treated to crazed combat, salacious sex scenes and massive muscles at every turn. If any more advance notice were needed, the show's opening even comes with a disclaimer, above and beyond the TV-MA rating and gamut of standard content warnings (AC, AL, GV, N, SC): "Spartacus depicts extreme sensuality, brutality and language that some viewers may find objectionable."

In my experience, programs with the most explicit warnings beforehand usually garner the most viewership. I won't be surprised if Spartacus follows suit.

Just getting past the in-your-face gratuitousness of it all (which is quite a task, mind you), the show seems like a sure-fire winner. The acting is quality; the storyline, though clearly plucked from history and other films, is appealing; and the heavily computer-enhanced expositions land about halfway between the backdrops of Gladiator (2000) and 300 (2006).

Gladiator school headmaster Batiatus (a role that garnered Peter Ustinov an Oscar in 1961) and his wife are played by John Hannah (The Mummy) and Lucy Lawless (Xena: Warrior Princess) respectively. Happily, though, Spartacus and Mrs. Spartacus--and the gladiators and Romans around them--are mostly unknowns. (I truly hate when an otherwise good TV show or movie forces a famous face into the lead role.)

The Starz channel programming may lag behind its competitors, but by latching onto the seemingly universally popular Roman theme, it may also escape irrelevance quite soon. And with the "intensity of the content" Spartacus offers, I'm betting subscribers will be tuning in, in great numbers, even if it's just to see what the fuss is about.