After the holidays I always find myself watching things I can’t easily explain, like The Sinful Dwarf or the British show As Time Goes By. I’d like to say I came to Spartacus: Blood and Sand on some high-wing of original thought, because I enjoyed creator Steven S. DeKnight’s previous work on Smallville or that I dug the metaphors of maces and swords or some cool shit like that. But the truth is, I don’t care about no Spartacus. I read an interview with New Zealand’s Lesley-Anne Brandt where she was talking about being a sex slave in a Roman ludus wearing little more than cloth drippings and that she was used to fondling co-star Lucy Lawless (Xena) by now because that’s what they do as sex slaves and . . . and I thought, that sounds totally gripping. I know I’m late the party. I often am.
The show, which was the flagship original program on Starz, as prefaced, had a strong sexual component for sure. But there were other stylish nuances that kind of made it enjoyable beyond fetish intrigue. For instance, the lighting—pale golds, bronzes, cerulean blues and the purple of caked blood from nobody having worshed—has the comic book feeling of ancient times. Smart. The dialogue is excellent, though ladled indelicately with “fucks” and “cocks” as to keep young audiences in high spirits. Come to think of it, there’s surely a drinking game to be had whenever the gladiator ringleader Batiatus (John Hannah – nobody says “fuck” like a Scotsman) goes into a tantrum and starts slanging modern day dirty words—which is every episode, several times per. The arena battles are slow-motion gorefests, with slashing sounds, flapping open wounds with exaggerated blood-spray and comical power-chords pushing it all along. Sometimes the blood hits the lens. It’s a ridiculous effect not meant for 3-D—just meant to soak your screen for the fun of it. And the Spartacus character (played by lucid-eyed Andy Whitfield) can’t fight too well at first unless he’s up against something as tricky as death. Then he roars and slashes throats or decapitates 1000-1 favorites like Theokoles. Later he does this without complaint, like good chattel. Everybody glistens either way. Everyone, it is imagined, has a stench and a pent-up libido. There’s a lot of grape eating. Two-timing. Deceit. Diabolica. Domina and Dominus in lording airs with vertical camera angles to give you that sense.
All fine touches.
But you know, what strikes me is that Starz—though I watched the whole thing in quick succession on Netflix—can get by with murder. I thought Showtime’s Bizarre with Jon Byron and The Benny Hill Show were racy in the 1980s because they played cute with the “show may contain adult content” label (read: fun with boobies). On this, there are orgies for the ludi where every dark fire-lit gaol is resonating with huffing and puffing and sheening bodies and ripped men showing neck. Consent, my ass—the captives are summonsed for late-night favors, and the captives are laying captives. There are love stories both delved into and insinuated, but they are always consummated publicly. One couple—the gigantic Barcia and the much littler and far more innocent Pateros—are happily gay, and nobody discriminates. The Dominus and Domina have on-going relations together and, in efforts to keep it 1970s loose, with others. The songbird wallpaper behind them in this setting is soothing.
In the collision of styles this whole thing works. I won’t bother you with plot—plots are a dime a dozen. Suffice to say that Spartacus loves his wife beyond all allegiances and his moral ground is way higher than yours, dude. So is that the point of all this? I don’t know. Gratuity just manages to be something, whether it’s through sex, evisceration or a soap opera network of backstabbers. But when the whip-wielding gladiator trainer Doctore utters lines like “A gladiator does not fear death—he embraces it. Caresses it. Fucks it. Every time he enters the arena, he slides his cock into the mouth of the beast,” you can’t help but see the correlation. The whole show is as indisputable as that.
I see that they are running a second season, a prequel to “Blood and Sand” called Gods of the Arena, on January 21. They went the prequel route because Whitfield—Spartacus!—was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was undergoing treatment.