When the first season of the Starz original production of "Spartacus: Blood & Sand" came to its frenzied and gore soaked conclusion, I screamed in horror as my favorite evil doers lay in pools of blood. Okay, first I was laughing delightedly at the over-the-top genius and spectacle of that last episode--but then I realized that the second season might go on without the cunning antics of Lucy Lawless and John Hannah. And that, my friends, is a scary thought--because their diabolical machinations were a principle selling point of the show! For the record, I don't know their specific fate--but visually it didn't look very promising! However, when lead Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with cancer, it left the second season upended to see what would happen. Whitfield did, indeed, have to drop out--but the series went forward with another actor cast. This delay, however, caused the creation of the six part "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena" prequel. And while not as instantly compelling as its insane predecessor, the show does allow viewers to spend more time with Batiatus (Hannah) and Lucretia (Lawless)!
Set in the period prior to "Blood and Sand," "Gods of the Arena" charts the trials and tribulations as Hannah tries to maneuver his gladiator house into a position of prominence. There is a new set of political opponents, plenty of familiar faces among the gladiator ranks (including the arrival of bad boy Crixus), and a fresh faced hero of the Batiatus house. Dustin Clare as Gannicus is filled with charm and bravado--but being a gladiator star may be a short lived occupation! Those that come to the show for its action elements will be delighted by the continuous blood-letting and the vibrantly ridiculous CGI effects. Not aiming for realistic violence, one of the pleasures of these programs is the gleefully over-the-top spectacle presented within each episode. One of my favorite confrontations is a blind-folded Gannicus doing battle with a top rival in another house. The fight scenes are choreographed with gruesome precision and are always loads of fun.
Some of the soap opera drama, however, is not quite as effective as the original show. One particularly awkward moment of unnecessary histrionics comes when a married slave woman is required to have sex with Gannicus, who happens to be a friend of her husband. How much sex, debauchery, murder and perversion have we seen in the Batiatus home? I mean seriously! This little act of infidelity seems pretty minor and yet Lawless seems disturbed to have to require it and the slave weeps at the indiscretion (before enjoying it, of course). She's a slave--and slaves are tortured and abused--how much emotion am I supposed to work up because she has to have sex? It's even tender and loving!
Through it all, though, Lawless is a delight and Hannah oozes menace. Their campy villainy remains a highlight! But I've saved the best for last, "Gods of the Arena" has added an absolutely delicious new character in Jaime Murray's Gaia. Murray, who I've appreciated in everything from "Hustle" to "Warehouse 13" to "Dexter," plays a cohort of Lawless. She inhabits the role with sly malevolence and indisputable sexiness. She may be what I remember most about this incarnation of the series! If you enjoyed the original show, this should be fitful entertainment as you await the arrival of Season Two. It may not possess the madcap and operatic genius of the Whitfield story arc--but there are still plenty of depraved pleasures to be had! KGHarris, 2/11.