I thought it would just be a fun, mindless series. As it turns out, Spartacus is much more than that. In fact, this show by Steven S. DeKnight does a number of things so well that I feel compelled to shine the Story Spotlight on it.
But in talking about what this series does well, I feel I should be fair and begin by discussing what it doesn’t do well.
The bad and the ugly
The first problem I noticed was the blatant rip-off of 300. The creators of Spartacus clearly sought to ride Zack Snyder’s wave in both style and content. This is rarely a good thing, and Spartacus‘ obvious imitation makes it seem like a generic copy at first glance.
Additionally, while 300 certainly has some artistic merit, it leans heavily on the crutches of gratuitous sex and violence. Unfortunately, Spartacus takes the same path and wears a deeper groove. Of course, I’m not against sex or violence, but I am diametrically opposed to relying on crutches in order to advance a story.
Then there’s the problem of Spartacus‘ graphics: I can’t recall a single, good-looking piece of CGI in the entire series. I understand that the show’s creators were working with a limited budget, but they could have put more effort into disguising that weakness. For example, the blood-gasms during fight sequences almost appear intentionally cartoonish. While not preferable, this is reasonable given the blatant copy of 300‘s graphic novel style. But the show gives no such attempt at disguise for other CGI efforts: overhead shots of armies look like a game of Age of Empires, and green screen settings are cringeworthy on the level of Luke fighting the Rancor. Fortunately, Starz wasn’t making a sci-fi series here, and CGI was rarely needed, so this error is easily forgiven.
The show’s awkward dialogue, on the other hand, is much more difficult to pardon. I get the feeling that writers were going for a Shakespearean vibe, but good intentions turned sour somewhere along the way. Like when someone you don’t know very well hugs hello, and their hands do a bit of back-rubbing in the process. It’s not horrible, but it certainly isn’t comfortable.
Last on my list of faults, Spartacus has a number of predictable storylines. Of course, this is expected to some degree. After all, what story about a Roman gladiator / Greek warrior would be complete without a few cliches? But in a shocking turn of events, I think this weakness ends up being something of a strength for the series.
Because the story seemed so mundane and cookie-cutter at first glance, I wasn’t prepared for the subtle turns it ended up taking. While, some threads proved as predictable as they appeared, many of them held twists that I found admirable. I’m not sure if the writers intended this, but it worked for me. So congrats to them.
Around the time of the first plot twist, I noticed something else that was special about Spartacus. The acting is good. Really good. As it turns out, nearly every performance is noteworthy, if not phenomenal.
And this is only amplified by the array of fairly complex characters. I preferred the Roman characters in their diversity and range, but even the gladiators and slaves had compelling variety for such basic character types.
But I thought the most outstanding part of the show was the way writers handled losing their lead actor. Most shows and movies tend to suffer when a main cast member leaves, let alone when it’s the lead. More so when that lead plays the titular character! But this series showed admirable skill in handling the death of Andy Whitfield, who played the titular character in the first season. His story is a sad one, and part of me feels bad for finding anything good in the situation. But at the same time, I feel compelled to give heaps of credit to the writers for the astounding way they salvaged the show. How did they accomplish such a feat?
They managed this through a prequel.
Yes, a prequel!
It was jarring for me at first, leaving season one’s gripping ending to go back in time. But that melted away after a few episodes. The second season basically deals with the origin story of Spartacus’ owners, Batiatus and Lucretia (played by John Hannah and Lucy Lawless). Thanks to their superb acting, a fantastic cast (almost all of whom returned from the first season), and quality writing, the story holds together throughout the second season. More than that, it actually builds on the intensity of the first, and even enriches the returning cast. In other words, the writers handled season two expertly.
But it gets even better.
Thanks to that prequel season, the writers were able to introduce a new character who essentially takes Spartacus’ place for those few episodes. Thus, when they returned to the main story with a new lead actor, they were able to bring back the main character from the prequel season. While I didn’t realize it right away, this decision managed to keep the series together quite well, despite the jarring effect of a new actor in the titular role. Certainly, if it weren’t for that skillful maneuvering in the prequel season, I think seasons three and four would have been far more awkward.
And this is really what I wanted to get at. Through skilled character development, superb plotting, and phenomenal acting this series was salvaged from an otherwise terrible situation. That sort of talent demands applause, no matter how bittersweet.
4 out of 5 stars