Spartacus: Blood & Sand,
created by Steven S. DeKnight
(Anchor Bay, 2010)

It can easily be dismissed as yet another premium TV series that capitalizes on nudity, sex and hyper-violence for ratings.

But Spartacus: Blood & Sand, the first season of the Starz series set in the decadent Roman Empire, has a lot more going for it than that.

First, there's the story itself. Little is known of the historical Spartacus -- which was, by the way, not his real name -- except that he was a Thracian gladiator, possibly enslaved after deserting from the Roman army, who was among the leaders of a major uprising of slaves that briefly threatened the Roman Empire.

This first season is about the period preceding the revolt; it details the Thracian's capture and training as a gladiator, and his rise in the arena, even as he turns resentment against his captors into a plan for freedom. It's a riveting story that draws you in before you know it.

Second, there's the cast. While one might assume from first glance that their musculature and nude form was of primary concern, the actors largely give strong performances.

Foremost among them is Andy Whitfield as the brooding Spartacus; sadly, Whitfield died of cancer after the first season and the role had to be recast.

Other strong recurring characters in the series include Manu Bennett as arena champion Crixus, an angry but lovestruck Gaul; Peter Mensah as the stern trainer Doctore; John Hannah and Lucy Lawless as Batiatus, owner of the ludus where gladiators are trained, and his wife Lucretia; Craig Walsh-Wrightson as rival ludus owner Solonius; Craig Parker and Viva Bianca as the Roman legatus Glaber and his sensual, meddling wife Ilithyia; Erin Cummings as Spartacus's wife Sura; and various slaves and gladiators such as Jai Courtney (Varro, Spartacus's closest friend at the ludus), Antonio Te Maioha (Barca, Crixus's greatest ally), Katrina Law (Mira, a sympathetic serving girl) and Nick E. Tarabay (Ashur, a plotting former gladiator who assists Batiatus in his business affairs).

I particularly enjoyed watching Hannah's various machinations and ambitions; he did good service as both a sympathetic slave owner and cunning plotter and revenge seeker. Courtney was fun to watch as the most affable gladiator. Bianca, who came across initially as simple eye candy, brought a great deal of sensuality to one episode and some subtle machinations of her own by season's end.

Third is the cinematography. Although the CGI is sometimes obvious, the series goes to great effort to make the bloody combat look real. One might say it is gratuitously gory -- and yeah, it is -- but one also might argue that there's no other way to show realistic gladiator combat. It was a bloodsport for which gruesome injuries were commonplace and horrific scars were a badge of honor.

All in all, Blood & Sand is an entertaining series that is over too quickly. While most of the action takes place in the arena, the story develops primarily in Batiatus's ludus -- and the season finale is a brutal, but satisfying, conclusion to many dangling plot threads.

review by
Tom Knapp

18 February 2017

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