TV Review: SPARTACUS: GODS OF THE ARENA – "Past Transgressions"

A prequel to the Starz hit Spartacus: Blood & Sand, Gods Of The Arena was originally a flashback idea the producers wanted to pursue in season 2. However, following the cancer relapse of the show's star Andy Whitfield, the concept was expanded to became a six-part miniseries and stopgap while they recast the role of Spartacus. There's much to enjoy about this return of Starz's uniquely raucous, profane and ultra-violent approach to historical drama (a pulp fusion of Zack Snyder's 300, Ridley Scott's Gladiator and HBO's Rome), although there are inevitable problems with the fact it's a prequel €“ not least a feeling of safety spoiling intended jeopardy, as we know which characters are destined to survive the story. It's an unavoidable byproduct of doing a prequel, but it's a shame became Blood & Sand was very adept at pulling off shocking deaths, so in that respect Gods Of The Arena feels less dangerous and more predictable. Gods Of The Arena ostensibly tells the story of how Batiatus (John Hannah) rose to prominence in the city of Capua, succeeding his father as domina of his gladiator ludus. In "Past Transgressions" the House Of Batiatus is on a lower rung of importance, with their gladiators fighting in a much smaller stadium while the city's impressive new arena is built. Batiatus has a prized fighter in Gannicus (Dustin Clare), a gladiator with rockstar swagger and goodlooks that endear him to the baying crowds, but he needs to get his champion noticed by influential people during afternoon bouts if he's to capitalize on Gannicus's natural talents. The rise of the House Of Batiatus was a backdrop story for Blood & Sand, and the same is true with this prequel miniseries, although it's more emphasized and we're starting from a lower ebb -- with Batiatus himself a mere proxy of his absent father who's determined to step out from under his parent's shadow. For established Spartacus fans, there are the expected nods to many of the recognizable character's humble beginnings: in particular, future "Champion of Capua" Crixus (Manu Bennett) is a belittled new recruit hungry to prove his worth and join the brotherhood of gladiators; and the fearsome whip-cracking Doctore is a gladiator known as Oenomaus (Peter Mensah), who's jealous of the fact Gannicus has stolen his limelight. There are undoubtedly echoes of Blood & Sand's setups throughout Gods Of The Arena, which may be intended as "echoes from history", or just a sign a show like this only has so many cards to play. The relationships of Gannicus, Crixus and Oenomaus are especially familiar to what's gone before, albeit with some fun twists, such as the fact Oenomaus is currently the only gladiator in a relationship with a woman (indeed, he's married, whereas in Blood & Sand he was married to his work). Also, Batiatus's wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) is once again in a close girly relationship with a posh socialite called Gaia (Jaime Murray), who may be able to grease the wheels of her husband's ambition, and is aghast at the very suggestion she use her privileged position to sleep with her slaves. However, while "Past Transgessions" was undoubtedly familiar and occasionally felt like a different approach to last year's material, it's still a huge amount of fun. The dialogue alone (best described as very articulate profanity) is often mesmerizing to listen to, although it can take awhile for your ear to get attuned to the vulgarity. Hannah's punchy performance was always a standout in Blood & Sand, so placing the emphasis on him for this prequel feels like a wise move -- with the Scottish actor surpassing his countryman Peter Capaldi's on-screen vulgarities in The Thick Of It. Nearly every scene in Spartacus features nudity, swearing, sex, geysers of blood, slow-motion, and lashings of violence. For those reasons it's undoubtedly an acquired taste, and the series did a notoriously bad job of balancing its ribald style/attitude with anything resembling worthwhile characters and storylines for the opening four episodes of Blood & Sand. The writers got the formula right halfway through last year's season, so Gods Of The Arena benefits from that evolution here, as the first episode doesn't take long to hit its stride. It's just a shame they chose to open "Past Transgressions" with an unnecessary recap of Blood & Sand's big events, which felt like a huge misstep. The existing fans don't need to be reminded of anyone's fate, while newcomers have the fates of many characters spoiled within minutes of tuning in! It would have made more sense to simply position this miniseries as a separate entity, but make it so compelling that any newcomers are inspired to continue watching Blood & Sand when Gods The Arena reaches its conclusion in six weeks. Overall, "Past Transgressions" delivered another hour of juicy and compelling entertainment; a gritty/hammy mix of politics, treachery, manipulation, violence, silliness and sex. It's unfortunate the miniseries unavoidably feels less dangerous, because we know what happens to the majority of the characters, but hopefully new characters like Gaia and Gannicus will be able to alleviate that problem. Or does their absence from Blood & Sand mean they're destined to die, rather predictably? The show does come wit the expected problems of being a prequel, but hopefully the writers can spin a yarn so gripping the fans will happily put aside their foreknowledge.
WRITER: Steven S. DeKnight DIRECTOR: Jesse Warn CAST: Dustin Clare, Lucy Lawless, John Hannah, Peter Mensah, Manu Bennett, Antonio Te Maioha, Nick Tarabay, Jaime Murray, Lesley-Ann Brandt & Marisa Ramirez TRANSMISSION: 21 January 2011, Starz, 10 ET/PT
I will continue to review Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena every week at my blog, Dan's Media Digest.
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