Spartacus: Blood and Shrug

After reader David Sigurani asked what I thought about Starz’ Spartacus: Blood and Sand, I realized that I hadn’t really even considered watching it. This week, both Spartacus and The Deep End were eviscerated by critics to the point where watching them seemed kind of unnecessary. However, since David asked, and since critical impressions indicated that Spartacus was so obnoxiously bad that it would prove interesting if not fulfilling, I decided to sit down with the pilot.

What surprised me is not that the pilot is terrible, but rather that the pilot’s terribleness does not necessarily feel like some sort of tragedy. The show has absolutely no sense of subtlety, no character nuances, and a twisted depiction of both how human resolve conflict and express their love for one another, and yet there is so little actual content beyond those factors that I don’t feel as if there is some television travesty on display. Sure, I’d like to see the enjoyable Lucy Lawless on a better show, and I do wish Rome would have gotten a longer run, but I can honestly say that I check out of Spartacus: Blood and Sand with a shrug, and well wishes for those who stick with the show to see how it builds towards a second season that’s already been ordered, and that’s already stocking up on departing Dollhouse staffers.

More on why I’m checking out despite thinking the show could actually grow into something better, after the jump.

I don’t have any particular feelings towards sand, but blood is not my favourite thing in the world. I wasn’t squeamish, per se, as litres upon litres of blood was spilled in the show’s pilot, but I was entirely unmoved, which I’d consider a problem. The pilot decides that blood is something that people love, especially when it’s spilled in slow motion and splashes on the screen, which isn’t a baseless presumption: the producers saw 300, or more accurately saw its box office gross, and decided they wanted some of that action. However, even if someone does love those gimmicks, I can’t imagine they wouldn’t have tired of them based on how often they popped up here, as any impact it had was gone by the time we reached the conclusion. I’m imagining the same pilot where those techniques were only used in the climactic battle, and it’s far easier to handle in terms of accepting it as an actual narrative.

The entire pilot suffers because its action sequences are monotonously bloody, while its other scenes either try to duplicate the same gratuitous quality through sex or just feel completely out of place. While I found the pilot’s action, sex and talking all pretty boring since there were only paper-thin characters to participate in them, the latter was placed at such a stylistic disadvantage that the show could have never survived. There’s probably some potential for the more political side of the Gladiator trade to develop into something interesting if we take the Pilot as back story for our Spartacus, but the show demonstrates so little interest or effort in those sections that one has to wonder how it will ever develop to anything more than an afterthought. And because the part of the show they are more interested in, the blood, holds so little interest to me, there’s not enough for me to stick around to see when their priorities shift.

I have all sorts of little issues with the direction and the performances in the pilot, including the fact that no one seemed to be cold when out in the winter in freaking loincloths, but it’s not worth going into it all. The world the show wants to populate is reductive and poorly drawn, the plot hits various cliched beats and never bothers to follow through on most of them, and while there’s every chance that the show could eventually go from 0 to, say, 20 or so in a few weeks I really don’t want to wait around for that to happen. I might check back in Season 2 when the Whedonites truly arrive, but I think I’m going to let Spartacus have his own journey.

Cultural Observations

  • I could think of all sorts of ways for the show’s thin premise to seem more engaging, like slowing down the pace and focusing more on Spartacus’ back story, but I don’t know if there’s any way for it to actually be more engaging.
  • The laughable dialogue sort of tapered off after a while, but in the first few scenes I giggled way too often for a show this quasi-serious.
  • Mo Ryan at the Chicago Tribune has said the show picks up in Episodes 3 and 4, but most critics didn’t get past the second episode – I’ll be curious to see if many people are watching by that point.
  • I was way too distracted by the fact that Andy Whitfield looks exactly like Chace Crawford.
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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Spartacus: Blood and Shrug

  1. David Sigurani

    I appreciate you reviewing this as it helped to sort out my thoughts on Spartacus. Completely agree with everything you mention here. Especially the repetitiveness of the action sequences and the dragging non-plot and bland characters. Ultimately, as a lover of Rome, the show, and the period of history, I wish this was far better than it is. I’m sure it gets better (as most things at least improve slightly), but I’m still unsure if I’m willing to stick around. It’s one of those things where when shows are bad in the early episodes, I tend to have faith in the creatives behind it and keep going. Examples being Dollhouse, Fringe, and True Blood, despite weak starts. But I’m tired of doing that. When can we again have shows who know their voice and are compelling right out of the gate?

  2. Daniel

    You make some very good points. I watch this show only for the reason of studying the male characters(i dont care what anyone says crixus and sparticus are REAL role models for men) they both have superior body language(always head up) and speak with words of wisdom and cockiness. though they both seem to give into their emotions and act like children. for ex. sparticus trying to run away with his wife.lol and crixus over acting when he saw his maid girl talking to a guard(to simply get his cell key). they both are head strong alphas with NO FEAR. Other than that everyone’s character is either straight up evil or no character at all.

  3. Tim

    Turns out your review and thoughts were pretty much dead-on. While the first episode was full of pretentiously verbose dialogue, paper-thin characters, and gratuitous sex and violence, the show really did grow over time.

    I started watching it with a couple friends on friday nights just because at first the gratuitious sex and violence made it great fare to gather with friends and drink beers (remarkable how much that helped the early shows). But then something strange happened. Every single episode was better than the one preceding it. And what started out a guilty pleasure to enjoy only with friends and plenty of alcohol became one of the most compelling shows on my television viewing schedule. By the time the season finale came around this weekend, it was, with the exception of Lost and Breaking Bad, my most anticipated television show of the week.

    John Hannah as Batiatus turned into a truly evil and yet compelling villain, with Lucy Lawless’ Lucretia seeming to compete with the show’s other villainess, Illythia (this is the first time I’m aware of that I’ve seen Viva Bianca act) in a race to not merely cross every moral event horizon (One of my favorite concepts that I picked up from tvtropes.com), but to completely obliterate it. And Andy Whitfield’s Spartacus, who began the show as little more than a killing machine whose only real trait was affection for his wife, very quickly developed complex relationships with characters ranging from the other gladiators to the son of the local magistrate, as well as the show’s most compelling relationship: Spartacus and Batiatus.

    I can understand being turned off by the pilot, and with the volume of shows you comment on each week, I can understand how it convinced you to focus your attention on other shows, but I’d strongly recommend you take a look at the first season once it comes out on DVD. I guarantee you if you pick a slow saturday sometime and start with the first episode, by the 3rd or 4th show, you won’t be able to stop watching until it reaches its bloody (but surprisingly fitting compared to the early bloodshed) climax in the finale. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the series as a whole at some point and am particularly looking forward to the second season with the infusion of Whedonites.

    I’ve been following your site since I discovered it last spring (I believe it was around the time LaFleur was airing; in fact, I think that may the first article I read on your blog) and make sure to read every review that you do on the shows that I watch. Keep up the fantastic work!

    -Tim

  4. Lyra

    It’s really pathetic how you criticize this show to death after watching only the pilot.
    Get to know this: Spartacus is one of the best shows on TV.
    Its problem is that it gets great by episode 5, but it’s as good as Rome, in a different way.
    Believe me or not, but shut up before writting your bad review if you have only watched the pilot.

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