Anchor Bay // 2011 // 335 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Rogers (Retired) // September 13th, 2011
"Words fall from your mouth as shit from ass."
Spartacus: Blood and Sand was one of the best television shows of 2010. Flat out, simple as that. The first few episodes may have had a narrative that was too derivative of Ridley Scott's Gladiator and the entire show may have cribbed its visual style from Zach Snyder's 300 and then amped it up on amphetamines. But really, the show had some of the best, most complex and seriously gratifying dramatic writing to grace a television show in a long time. The series seemed to be sold on the promise of graphic sex and even more graphic violence. And while it had that in spades, even to the point where it almost spoils the entire thing, you just have to look under the surface to see the brilliance. Now here we are with Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, a six episode prequel that went into production after season two of the show was put on hold for the late Andy Whitfield (Gabriel) to undergo treatment for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. While the shortness of this prequel hampers the ability of the plotlines to really flourish, this is still a very worthy addition to an already stellar series.
Batiatus (John Hannah, The Mummy) yearns to be standing on the steps of the senate in Rome while his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless, Xena: Warrior Princess) wants nothing more than to be the talk of the town. The problem is that they're stuck in the muck of Capua, an insignificant Roman backwater. Instead of politics, Batiatus traffics in buying, training and fighting gladiators. It's far from the high social strata. To add insult to injury, powerful forces strive to keep Batiatus and his greatest gladiator, Gannicus (Dustin Clare, Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities), out of the arena. Batiatus and his wife must scheme their way to the top of both the gladiatorial and social world of Capua.
I want to sit here and gush about Spartacus: Gods of the Arena because I think it's a show that gets snubbed for appearing to traffic in cheap exploitative smut and because it's on Starz. This is all perfectly true. The show is ridiculously over the top and Starz gets looked down upon by HBO and Showtime elitists. But with every episode this show grows on you. You start to love it for being so graphic, so smutty and so damn ridiculous. It's like nothing you've ever seen before on TV and you have to respect the fact that they show almost as much full frontal male nudity as they do female. Then it starts to stick in your head that maybe all this violence and sex is actually some sort of self-reflexive parody meant to subconsciously show the absurdity of the modern male identity. But maybe that's intellectualizing it too much.
The intricate plot lines of revenge, lust and power are where Spartacus: Gods of the Arena really shines. They tap into your primal urges to see someone get their comeuppance and inject it with so much testosterone that you fear you'll overdose on manliness. And not since Deadwood has a show had such a distinct and satisfying patois. The characters' speech patterns and epithets are refreshing in their originality and playfulness and the actors deliver their lines believably. It's no surprise that the writing is top notch considering the talent they have behind it. Steven S. DeKnight, the show's creator, cut his teeth on writing for both Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While the episodes DeKnight wrote for the first season were some of the worst he seems to have tightened things up this time around.
Most central to the multitude of plotlines is learning how Crixus (Manu Bennett, 30 Days of Night) came to be the Champion of Capua and who he had to win that title from. The most interesting plot line is the battle for supremacy between Crixus The Untrained Gaul and the arrogant but playfully skilled Gannicus, who is played perfectly by Dustin Clare (even if six episodes isn't enough to make him as complex as Andy Whitfield's Spartacus). It's great to see Crixus's journey from a reverent unwashed slave to the maliciously arrogant champion that we saw in season one. And the character of Gannicus injects a much needed playful nature to the proceedings. He appears arrogant, apathetic and boastful but as the show progresses we're given a glimpse behind the mask to see a tortured soul, consumed by a love he can't possibly have and spiteful of a life he never wanted. This is what the writers of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena have always done best; they take a two dimensional character or an obvious archetype and transform them into a complex character with an incredibly emotional pitch. You just don't see this on TV as much as you should.
The meat of this season lies with the characters of Batiatus and his wife Lucretia, who are always trying to plot and scheme their way to the top of the social scene. John Hannah and Lucy Lawless together were one of the best parts of Season one. They're such maliciously complex and violent characters and yet because of the performances and the chemistry between the two actors, you can understand why they do the things they do. It's no different this time around and it's great to finally see how Batiatus came to be in possession of his Ludus. However, not enough time is given to really develop the main plotline between Batiatus and his rivalries that would keep him out of the new gladiatorial arena. Hannah does the most with what he can in the span of so few episodes. His performance is, at times, so over-the-top and yet grounded that it seems as if he's going to go supernova. It's maddeningly amazing to think how good this performance is but it's even more amazing that every actor takes this as a cue to try and match him. This is what makes the acting here so absolutely perfect across the board. I'm having a hard time thinking of a better performance on a television show in recent memory.
What it ultimately comes down to is this: Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is a show meant for people who are able to look past the surface to see what's underneath. But most importantly, it's a show for people who are sick and tired of stale and predictable television. It's like nothing you've ever seen before and it's like nothing you'll see for a long time. It deserves to be watched, discussed and praised and it deserves a much wider audience than it already has. Think outside the box and you'll fall in love with it.
To help bring the show to a wider audience, Anchor Bay has again released a stellar set for the show. The DVD comes in a sleek slipcase sporting a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The care and detail that's gone into the production of this show is evident in this transfer. Even for a DVD transfer, every little speck of dirt and snag of cloth looks amazing. The color palette is dominated by sun baked yellows, rustic browns and violent reds which pop off the screen. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is similarly great. It strikes a nice balance between the sharp dialogue and thundering action that constantly clash throughout the show, with neither dominating the other. The score, which is both brilliant and derivative at times, is loud and thumping when it needs to be and reserved during the stellar moments of drama.
To compliment the strong technical aspects of this set are a host of well-produced special features...
* Starz Studios: Gods of the Arena
* Weapons of Mass Disruption
* Battle Royale: Anatomy of a Scene
* On Set With Lucy Lawless
* 10 Easy Steps To Dismemberment
* Post Production: The Final Execution
* Enter The Arena: Production Design
* Dressed To Kill
* Convention Panel
* Arena Bloopers
I love this show and because of that I want to climb to the top of a mountain and scream out for everyone to watch it. Honestly and truly the only fault with this prequel is that it should have been 12 episodes long. And to those who want to jump into this show I suggest you start with season one because the first few minutes of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena spoils everything. And I also urge you to give that first season until the fourth episode before you swear it off.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Rogers; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 335 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated