SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND STARZ Network/Netflix Streaming Now Playing
I’ve often imagined what Angelina Jolie films would be like if they starred Lucy Lawless. Tomb Raider was in a manner envisioned for the Kiwi television icon—it’s a film based on a video game character, who was in turn inspired and made possible by the groundbreaking heroine Lawless created the year before in the syndicated television epic Xena: Warrior Princess. We forget now—after Buffy, Lara Croft and their increasingly pallid descendents—how recently women started kicking ass and how the ass kicking kick-started with Xena. If Lawless had played Lara Croft more girls would have taken up archaeology. As depicted by Jolie, raiding tombs looked like the most boringest job ever. As Walter Matthau said of Lillian Hellman, Jolie is “as seductive as a large bowl of oatmeal.” She turns stealing cars, being a hitwoman, and even belonging to the orgiastic cult of Dionysius into chores to be approached with detached and botoxed disdain, and I’ve pined often, when Jolie pops up onscreen, for the non-ironic glee with which Lawless embodies eros and toughness.
By Jupiter’s cock, I’m glad she’s back on TV. Lawless’s performance in Spartacus: Blood and Sand leaves no doubt that Alexander would have been a hit if Oliver Stone anointed Lawless as Queen Olympias instead of Jolie. Lawless is the brand, as they say, in this reboot of Spartacus, and for good reason. She retains the voluptuous beauty she had as Xena (now accented by a more colorful wardrobe) and more importantly, the bold shamelessness. Xena, which had low production value and likely necessitated the coinage of “cringeworthy,” charmed audiences because every time Lawless struck a well-placed, slapstick blow against evil, she broke out a brazen, infectious smile. Though Spartacus has inherited none of the lighthearted fantasy of Xena, Lawless is equally brazen.
That Lawless gets naked and sweaty like the rest of the cast (and for the first time in her career) is a television gamechanger on the order of David Caruso’s exposed butt on NYPD Blue. In the series premiere, she’s erotically caressed by her slave girl, in preparation for sex with her husband (who also outsources his foreplay). I can’t remember the last time I saw fluffers on TV. Gratuitous as it sounds, it’s groundbreaking stuff for soft-core cable. Even in The Red Shoe Diaries, David Duchovny never got to do anything more than read a few off-color lines before the stunt cocks took over. But Lawless does more than expose her bits and pieces; she also presents aspects of herself that, were she considered a more serious actress, would be straight-up Emmy bait. In her finest scene to date, Lawless rips a wig off her head and, channeling Mommy Dearest-era Joan Crawford, orders her handmaiden (yes, the one with the sticky fingers) to fetch some water. It’s more courageous and image shattering than you’d expect in a show with trash talking like, “Struck the mark near did I? Aah, yes. It all comes back round to a pair of tits and a tight little hole.” Lines like these are a main reason that Spartacus is better than we have any right to expect and the nature of the show itself.
Spartacus is about the flirtation between immaturity and immortality. Every word reversal that gets employed to remind the viewer that this is indeed olden days gets matched up with a willfully adolescent take on sex and violence. And for good measure, a shot of a disembodied head or a shaved scrotum. At the mid-season climax, Spartacus asks, pointedly, “Is there no purpose beyond the blood?” It’s directed towards Crixus, a fellow enslaved gladiator, who surely doubts any higher calling, but it feels like an aside. If you have to ask about the blood, you’ll never know. It’s another wink at the demographic that the show’s opening disclaimer is intended to scare off. Each episode opens with a title card declaiming that the “intensity of the sensuality, brutality, and language is intended to suggest an authentic representation of that period.” Not provide an authentic representation, but suggest that one could be created, should another, say, classier, producer so desire. Producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert have not said to what extent the questions of slavery, personal responsibility, and honor that Spartacus incarnates will be explored in the series, but there’s definitely a larger purpose within the blood than exhaustively well-executed cartoony gore.
Foremost, Spartacus introduces for us the future of television: 3-D. The end credits of the show are nearly unwatchable, and they recall the appearance Avatar had when I reached down for some popcorn and lost those ridiculous glasses. In every fight, a weapon is hurled straight at the viewer. In “traditional 2-D” it’s a dull trope, but soon, it will be pretty much the coolest thing ever. Plus Spartacus appears to be the first show shot purposefully to work on a giant TV or an iPod. Released for Starz cable TV, as a podcast, and on Netflix on Demand at the same time, it’s a testing ground for new modes of transmission of traditional TV shows. There are few long shots, and few quick cuts, so it can be followed on a tiny scale without viewer or narrative confusion. A warning however, learned the hard way: It is a terribly uncomfortable show to watch on an airplane, as the sex scenes are timed precisely to coincide with the flight attendants appearing at your aisle.
Further, Spartacus offers lessons in the past. Not the era of Roman gladiators, (despite what they disclaim at the start of each episode, the show is about as authentic as dinner at Medieval Times, if a lot sweatier) but the history of media. It calls upon the exploitation genre of sword and sandal filmmaking, the backwater cable fascination with mythical heroes, every You’re in the Army Now film ever made, the aesthetic of in studio CGI à la Sin City and 300, and the cadence of the video game. People move with incredible purpose, then stop dead still, as though being guided by a controller. In one episode, Spartacus finds himself demoted from the ennobled gladiators to a brawler in “the pits,” a hotbed of gambling and illegal death matches. (Why a society that has state sponsored death matches in gladiator rings would need a place like the pits is never fully explained.) Spartacus faces a series of opponents one after another who just keep getting bigger, badder, and more fiercely weaponed. It’s not a tournament—where if Spartacus can outmatch his opponents he will win acclaim or freedom—nor is it a dominance ritual, where he’s fighting to eventually be the head honcho. There is no biggestbadguy, just a next one. An appreciation of that distinction comes from a generation honed on Mortal Kombat, before the era of deeply storylined video games.
But Spartacus borrows from the newer first person perspective games as well. The word “you” is bandied about more than any other in Spartacus, and the visual device of an in-helmet gladiator-cam is overused, which provides the viewer a potent sense of identification with Spartacus, who—as I hope we all know from high school—will eventually rise up and lead a slave rebellion.
Much like Smallville, which has for seasons stretched out the story of Clark Kent before he put on his cape and became a superhero, Spartacus takes great pains to show that the title character isn’t a hero just yet. He’s self-obsessed, and fixated on saving his wife at the expense of everyone around him; he’s foolhardy and suggests suicide missions to those who are supposed to be his friends. And yet, even without knowing his fate, you know he is the chosen one for a very simple reason. He has the best jaw line of all the gladiators, a gathering singled out for enslavement by virtue of their mighty chins. (There isn’t a single one of those to be found among the Roman lords.)
Leading the weak-chinned is John Hannah, who plays Lawless’ husband and head of the gladiatorial school where Spartacus has landed. Best known for his work in Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Mummy movies, he’s as eager a participant in the chaos as Lawless. Getting an actor of his resume and caliber to prance about in lift sandals and MC Hammer pants, while playing a character without limits or mercy, suggest that making the show must be a whole lot of fun.
Hannah’s another character drawn with greater depth than needed for the show to work—by Episode Five the only characters who remain one-dimensional are the gladiators themselves. That might be Spartacus’ most subtle statement on slavery: it flattens your humanity. The slaveholders, though all unapologetically cruel, are remarkably textured. The ingénue in particular stands out. She’s a classic voyeur, who squeals with delight at making a gladiator (who unnervingly resembles Beverly Hills 90210’s Steve Sanders) do it doggie style to an anonymous enslaved woman. “I’ve never seen a gladiator fuck before,” she gasps. And if you don’t share her delight, despite yourself, Spartacus isn’t for you. Spartacus is base and revealing. But if you can sink into the rhythm of infantile gay jokes juxtaposed with explicit, and sometimes even touching homo-eroticism, revel at a good pun hidden in a good fight, and recognize that the surreal blood wipes and body parts hurtling at the screen are indeed the future of television (just wait till the NFL switches to 3-D, this carnage will look like nothing), a bacchanal awaits.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.