Making sense of the bloodiest postmodern show on television, Spartacus.

What you're watching.
Oct. 12 2010 10:14 AM

Authenticus Maximus

Making sense of the bloodiest postmodern show on television, Spartacus.

Spartacus. Click image to expand.
The Spartacus series on Starz

The first decapitation in Spartacus: Blood and Sand occurs 11 minutes into the first episode of Season 1. Two swordsmen in northern Greece, circa 75 B.C., hack, block, thrust, parry, and dodge until one of them overcommits. The poor guy finds himself not only off balance and exposed at the upper torso but, fatally, lacking the power of computerized fast-motion technology that his opponent suddenly possesses. If he'd known his opponent had this power, he probably would have fought more defensively, but it's too late. He's shown his throat, whereupon his opponent's sword, a few degrees into a roundhouse slash, accelerates to invisibly fast. The next thing we see is a body spinning hard to its left as its head releases from its neck at a slightly higher rate of rotation. You really only notice that the fighters' skin has been digitally washed to the gray-blue of hypothermia, thanks to its contrast with the red of the centrifuging blood, which obviously comes from a warmer palette.

This is what combat looks like in Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which presents the same rebellious gladiator that Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas gave the world in 1960. He's played now by a Welsh actor named Andy Whitfield, * and Season 1 tracks his enslavement in Thrace through his gladiatorial victories in provincial Capua. It's bloody stuff, maybe the goriest violence ever filmed for television, but you can't say nobody warned you, because every show opens with a disclaimer:

Spartacus depicts extreme sensuality, brutality and language that some viewers may find objectionable. The show is a historical portrayal of ancient Roman society and the intensity of the content is to suggest an authentic representation of that period.

Casual listeners might hear the phrases "extreme … brutality," "historical portrayal of Ancient Roman society," and "authentic representation" and think they're being readied for some fearless realism, history as it truly was in all its cruelty and toplessness. But note the kicker: "[T]he intensity of the content is to suggest an authentic representation of that period." This is a brazenly postmodern formulation. It warns you not about what the show will portray for you of ancient Rome, but what it intends to do, to you, the viewer. It's going to use a certain relentless "intensity of … content" to "suggest" to you that you're getting "an authentic representation" of a period you're probably ignorant about anyway, so who's going to know the difference?

In practice, the show's means of suggestion are so patently high-tech and expressionistic as to evoke not the authentic pastness of the past but a guy at a monitor, guiding a mouse and sipping a macchiato in some animation warehouse. Luckily, though, Spartacus isn't just about gladiators killing each other under curtains of digital blood. It's also about the shrewd and lethal social climbing of Quintus Batiatus (John Hannah), who owns a Capua "ludus" (gladiator school and stable). After a handsome Thracian slave kills the four men who were supposed to be executing him for public sport, the presiding bigwig names him Spartacus, after a legendary Thracian king, and Batiatus buys him for his own.

Even better, Spartacus is a show about the wife of Batiatus, Lucretia (Lucy Lawless), and Lucretia's glamorous roster of upper-class frenemies. Together, Lawless and Hannah are just fantastic, glorious chewers of the opulent scenery and fake-ancient dialogue—perhaps the most decadently watchable TV couple ever. So it's kind of a bummer what ends up happening to them and their friends, and to their show, and, by extension, its audience.

But it's gratifying, at first, how they and their storylines grow from, and then overshadow, the show's first and much less interesting preoccupation: Spartacus and his fellow gladiators. By the third episode, the show has assumed an upstairs/downstairs scheme: Batiatus, Lucretia, and their friends upstairs (plus naked slave girls), Spartacus and the other gladiators downstairs. Unfortunately, the show's creators overwork this schematic division: They apply an entirely different sensibility—at once too clever and too crude—to the gladiators in the basement. The upstairs runs with many-sided characters who rant and joust in bawdy metaphors; the aggrieved Batiatus, for example, is always being sodomized by the gods. The downstairs, on the other hand, crawls with symbolically heavy representations: muscular men, often quite naked, who might signify the pleasures or the problems of macho, depending on the situation, but who don't talk very good at all.

This uninspired mix of beefcake and irony begins with Spartacus himself. After his initial triumph, he moves into the ludus and into immediate rivalry with the current champion Crixus (Manu Bennett). The creators of Spartacus obviously know someone's going to call the bare-chested standoff between hulking Crixus and model-handsome Spartacus "homoerotic." Their response is: "Didn't you see our disclaimer? We are totally onto the semiotics of this stuff." But their knowing gestures have to be blunt enough to register with their younger, maler viewers, whom they need for the show's survival but don't quite respect. When you're provoking and condescending at the same time, the result is often just postmodern obviousness: hitting people over the head ironically.

So, among other things, they stage a naked fight inside the ludus in which the two rivals are commanded by their trainer to Stop! just as Crixus rolls pelvis-to-pelvis onto Spartacus, whose legs are gently spread—two heroes frozen in the exact pose of a man and a woman having R-rated sex on a pay-cable TV show. Moments like these call to mind Philip Roth's Alexander Portnoy, who (um) complains that he's always bumbling into some Freudian slapstick: "My life is without latent content!" Spartacus, in other words, is a show in which the phallic symbolism consists almost entirely of penises.

It might help enliven the downstairs drama if Spartacus and Crixus radiated that secret delight in each other's heroic presence that people do tend to call homoerotic—but which I think is better understood as the homicidal narcissism of alpha dudes, which Hegel sort of talked about. Neither Whitman nor Bennett, though, seems much of an actor, and the two have none of the chemistry that lit up the faces of Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves in Point Break, everyone's favorite alpha-dude movie to misinterpret as homoerotic. Also, while Lawless and Hannah are allowed to rail in their own florid English accents, the gladiators' sound like they've been coached into a vaguely inflected blend of American and "British" grunting. When a beefy Welshman (Whitman) and a brutish New Zealander (Bennett) are made to bend their native pronunciation in an American direction, the resulting speech is placeless and bland, a kind of meathead Esperanto.

The turgid downstairs action might be worth it, if its point were to secure some of that coveted man-child demographic that made such a hit of 300(whose fight scenes Spartacus blatantly copies) and thereby subsidize the sparkling upstairs action for viewers with an interest in human speech. But this, alas, is one area in which the creators of Spartacus felt they had to answer directly to history instead of using its presumed intensities to implant their helpful suggestions. And so, late in Season 1, even as a warm bond seems to be forming between the new champion Spartacus and his owner Batiatus, and another persists between the old champion Crixus and the amorous Lucretia, betrayals slowly emerge to set the rivals against their master and his wife.

History requires Spartacus to start a slave rebellion in the ludus. The Starz series about him fulfills this obligation in a metatextual bloodbath. With all the upper-class friends of Batiatus and Lucretia present upstairs, Spartacus persuades Crixus to join him in revolt. What happens next cannot have ever happened on TV before: the worst, dullest characters on a show rising up, as a class, and slaughtering the show's best and most engaging characters. The creators and their second-tier pay network, then, seem to be doubling down on that man-child demographic—and so telling everyone else to get lost, go read a book or something.

But hope lives for these viewers. First, Starz plans to run a four-episode prequel to Spartacus ahead of Season 2 (which was delayed by Whitman's diagnosis of, and successful treatment for, non-Hodgkins lymphoma). It will focus on Capua's gladiators, pre-Spartacus, and thus revive our beloved Batiati. Second, Lucretia's most devious frenemy, Ilithia, survives Season 1's climactic slaughter, presumably to scheme through Season 2. As played by the lively and pale-haired Viva Bianca, Ilithia is a scream, half-sane at best and sexy as hell. It will be great to see her carry her half of the anarchy, though she'll need to be careful about coming off all clever and literate in her duplicity, lest she offend the vengeful gods that rule her show and they summon their hero Spartacus to hunt her down and give her a bunch of those hyperreal injuries they like so much and which he's so good at inflicting.

Correction, Oct. 12, 2010: The article originally included the incorrect last name for the actor Andy Whitfield. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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Matt Feeney is a writer in Oakland. You can email him and follow him on Twitter.

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