If you were to ask someone what words first spring to mind after watching the two debut episodes, they would not be the ones that you would associate with great television. Instead of great acting, great writing, and compelling production values, with Spartacus you can’t think of much beyond nudity, the irresponsible use of CGI, cardboardish writing, and blood. Lots of blood. Titanic quantities of blood. In fact, there is so much blood that it is hard not to think of the famous Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which copius amounts of blood spew from one severed arm and leg after another in absurd quanities. Was blood eve intended to be the major component of any series?
So what descriptive terms spring to mind when thinking of Spartacus?
One could also speak here of violence, but the violence in Spartacus, which is unrelenting, almost always gives way to blood, as if the point of the violence is to generate a severed artery.
We see blood gushing from wounds. We see blood that has been left to dry on on sweaty skin and unshaved stubble. We see blood gushing from severed limbs, from busted noses, from slit throats, from decapitated heads. There are times that blood is seen merely flying across the screen with no discernible source. At the climax of the big gladiator scene in the pilot episode, blood surges in a tidal wave behind the head of Spartacus, washing across the entire screen. At times the head of an actor will freeze while the blood continues to spurt across the screen. What is most distressing is there isn’t the slightest exaggeration in anything that I’ve described here. There is so much blood in this show that it almost achieves self-parody.
A sign of a weak show is how often it resorts to slow motion. A good show employs it rarely, a great show virtually never. Watch The Sopranos or Six Feet Under or even shows with a lot of action like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Battlestar Galactica and notice how rarely they use slow motion. You might see slo-mo used in a shot on Buffy to register her horror at something, like in the last few moments of “Becoming, Pt. 1,” when Buffy is shown runing in slo-mo as she realizes that she has been lured away from her friends so that they can be captured or killed. The technique is used to intensify emotion or to deepen the reaction of a character, but not to focus in pornographic fashion on the infliction of a wound. Even in merely decent shows slo-mo frequently contributes a show’s weakest moments. I will not defend Legend of the Seeker as a show of the first rank, but it is a serviceable guilty pleasure. Its many slow-motion sequences in fight scenes, however, lead to irritation. (I mention Buffy. Sadly, the creator of Spartacus is Steven S. DeKnight, who worked on both Buffy and Angel, though perhaps a clue to how low he was capable of descending was seen in one of the episodes he wrote when he worked on Smallville, the dreadful Buffy parody episode “Thirst,” in which Lana Lang’s life is endangered by a vampire named Buffy Sanders. Get it? Buffy the Vampire. Can we all just say “ugh”?)
I don’t object to the heavy use of CGI in Spartacus. As in Rome, it allows the recreation of a world that no longer exists and on a scale that is not possible with normal set design. Contrast the Romes of Rome and Xena: Warrior Princess and you see how much CGI can enhance a show. What I object to in Spartacus is the gratuitous use of CGI. The problem here is that the CGI is used for sheer ornamentation, mere decoration, a means of embellishing what would otherwise have been unremarkable moments. Contrast the use of CGI here to the use of it in Battlestar Galactica. In that series the CGI was rarely used merely to fill in for the absence of anything else, never simply for ornament. Even in all its CGI moments there was great dramatic tension and a way of justifying its use; on Spartacus there is only the surface of the image, without anything underneath.
One other strange aspect to the CGI on the show is that because all the landscapes are green screened, the natural world is not depicted at all. This would not be so remarkable except that the production is based in New Zealand, perhaps the most visually arresting country in the world. Visually the film resembles 300, but such films really aren’t located anywhere at all, but instead belong to the strange neverwhere that CGI can generate. One of the reasons I enjoy Legend of the Seeker is the astonishing locations available in New Zealand; they are also part of the reason that I love the Lord of the Rings films and enjoyed both Xena and Hercules (the latter two among my all-time favorite guilty pleasure shows). It is a tragedy to make a CGI series in a country that has perhaps the greatest landscapes available to any film and TV industry in the world. Productions come to New Zealand precisely because of its natural resources. Basing a production there and not utilizing its amazing exterior locations is like taking a vacation to Paris and staying inside one’s hotel room the entire time.
Surely no series in the history of television contains more gratuitous nudity than Spartacus. A host of shows contain some nudity. Granted it is not full frontal or especially revealing, but it is nudity, and it is almost always called for within in the context of the scene. When Sarah, John, and Cameron are propeled into the future in the pilot of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the time traveling premise of the show requires that they be nude. When the guiless and innocent Kyle at the beginning of Kyle XY is found walking naked in Seattle it is because he understands the concept of clothes or nudity no more than a newborn does. Having him stop to don a fashionable outfit would’t have made sense. But what is remarkable about the nudity in Spartacus is that none of it — at least none of it to date — is necessary or justifiable within the narrative. The point is merely to have naked people. The purpose is titillation. There is unquestionably a pornographic aspect to the show. Even Tell Me You Love Me was less pornographic in its use of nudity than this series, because while the underlying purpose of that show was to titillate, it did contain as a stated goal the serious exploration of sex in relationships. In this new series the nudity is just stuck in, mere ornamentation not unlike its pornographic use of blood and CGI. While some have compared Spartacus to either Rome or 300, its gratuitous nudity reminds me more of Caligula.
You can have sex without nudity and nudity without sex, but Spartacus, in its best softcore porn fashion, emphasizes both. Even Lucy Lawless, someone I enjoyed both in Xena and BSG (not to mention in some truly funny guest roles like in last year’s Flight of the Conchords), gets in on both the sex and nudity. What is distrubing about this is partly that her husband, Robert Tappert, who was the main force behind Xena, is one of the executive producers of this show. Like the nudity and the blood and the violence and the CGI, the sex on Spartacus doesn’t lead to anything. The sex like all of the other elements are destination spots, not roads to some new narrative place. It feels merely thrown in, rawly inserted, instead of something that rises organically from the story. Iin a way, this makes sense, because Spartacus really doesn’t have much of a story. We’ve all seen the movie, and we know how it proceeds and where it will end up, though this series doesn’t seem intent on imitating film slavishly, or even at all (though the black guy who plays the instructor of the gladiators does bear a striking physical resemblance to Woody Strode). All of the elements stress the surface, the texture of the image. But McKnight, Tappert and the others have forgotten something crucial: not all that shines is gold.
The intensely superficial nature of Spartacus, in the fullest possible sense of superficial, as relating to surface, would be mitigated somewhat by strong writing. If anything, the writing intensifies the problem. In the first two episodes of the series, there are simply no interesting narrative moments. Every single thing that happens is not merely tired, it feels stale and overused. We’ve seen all this before, in countless B movies and TV miniseries. I can honestly say that in these two episodes there was not a single interesting new thing, unless you count the numerous scenes early in the pilot in which the Thracians run about in the snow in outfits that leave their arms, legs, and heads almost completely exposed. But for the most part there is a “been there, done that, over and over and over” quality to the show that dulls the brain. I’m not sure if the blood, violence, CGI, nudity, and sex drives out any meaningful writing or if all of it is intended as a substitute for it. The quality of the plotting and the dialogue could almost certainly have been generated by a gifted freshman film student; in fact, I can imagine many striving for something a bit more interesting than what we find here.
All of this flashy superficiality leads the show to a sense of decadence. Indeed, the show intends to depict the decadence of Roman society, but in doing so is unable to avoid a decadence of its own. At the end of the two episodes, which I watched back to back, I felt sullied and demeaned. I can’t deny also a certain weird fascination. After all, a show that attempts to proceed by the presentation of one memorable surface image after another can be momentarily distracting. There is something arresting about a glittering image, even if it isn’t in the service of a story. But because there isn’t a strong narrative or interesting characters, all the show can do is repeatedly redirect one’s attention to the succession of images, to the endless procession of surfaces.
Spartacus could well represent a new low in television narrative. There have certainly been more boring series and more inept ones. But never has any TV show ever abused the visual surface of the medium to the degree that this one has. At this point I may be willing to nominate this as not merely the worst new series of the year, but perhaps the worst series ever. Certainly no large budget series has ever squandered its cash with so little to show for it. No amount of sex and nudity and blood will ever compensate for a bland and stale story.