Spartacus: Blood And Sand debuted in January of 2010 on Starz to fairly mixed reviews. Developed by Steve S. DeKnight, best known for his work on long running cult hits like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Smallville, the show was executive produced by DeKnight, Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi. So yeah, this is a series from the guys who brought you the aforementioned shows as well as The Evil Dead movies.
The series is set in 73BC where we meet a young Thracian who enlists in the Roman army to fight against the Getae and put an end to their raids into Roman territory. This man (Andy Whitfield) leaves his beautiful wife, Sura (Erin Cummings), to make this happen but figures once it's over with he'll be able to settle down and start a family with her. Unfortunately for him, his commanding officer, Claudius Gaber (Craig Parker) decides that he's going to earn himself a promotion by having his Thracian troops deal with a bigger problem by advancing on the Greeks. Our Thracian hero rallies his fellow soldiers and winds up leading them against Claudius and while this is very noble of him, it proves to be a bad idea. He's captured and sentenced to die in the gladiatorial arena while Sura is sentenced to a life in slavery.
Things start to change once he enters the arena, however. Here he proves to be very adapt with a sword and after slaughtering a few of his opponents, his death sentence is reduced and he's given the name Spartacus. He's then bought by Lentulus Batiatus (John Hannah), who basically runs a training camp for gladiators. Lentulus sees in Spartacus a great future but all Spartacus wants is to get back to his wife and resume some semblance of a normal life. Lentulus makes a deal with Spartacus and promises to find him and reunite him with Sura if he'll fight for him in the arena. A more experienced gladiator named Doctore (Peter Mensah) takes him under his wing and trains him to become the best he can be, which doesn't sit well with another gladiator named Crixus (Manu Bennett). As Spartacus gets better and better in the arena, he soon becomes not just a celebrity but an important political figure as well and he unwittingly sets into motion a series of events that will shape Rome in the days to come.
Spartacus: Blood And Sand sets new limits for what you can get away with on TV. Shockingly violent and chock full of intense blood and gore, the series also features more full frontal nudity from both its male and female cast members than anything Cinemax or The Red Shoe Diaries ever hoped for. This, on the surface at least, equates the series to little more than glossy exploitation, a show that revels in cheap, tawdry tactics to get a rise out of its audience without ever asking them to think. That said, as the show evolves, it does start to become more than just tits and gore (though those two elements never diminish). As characters become more fleshed out and are developed to the point where they start to show some real personality, the story does become more interesting. The sensationalist aspects never go away, but the series does start to rely less on them as it progresses.
As far as the cast is concerned, Whitfield makes for a good lead. He isn't the most versatile of thespians but he does a good job of looking tough and he carries himself well. As his character builds his skill level and in turn his confidence level, he rises to the challenge and infuses his performance with enough macho bravura that we can buy him in the part. The rest of the cast are fine as well, with Bennett making for a fun foil to Whitfield's more noble character and Cummings offering up a sympathetic supporting character we can feel for. The series never gets so deep or heavy that we're going to lie awake at night wondering what happens to these people but it at least makes them interesting enough that we can have fun with the show.
And that right there is what makes Spartacus: Blood And Sand as entertaining as it is. If you into this expecting something heady and even intelligent you'll likely walk out after the first episode after being bombarded with loads of slow motion bloodshed and CGI arterial spray. That said, if you go in with your expectations in check, you can definitely enjoy this series as the glossy exploitation that it is. Sure, it could have used more exposition here and there and focused more on the political aspects of the series and its ramifications instead of naked ladies and severed limbs, but those of us who like naked ladies and severed limbs will have a good time with this show, historical accuracy be damned.
The series does frequently rip off (yes, not just pay homage to, but literally copy from) 300 in its visual style and it drinks from the well of Scott's Gladiator on a semi-regular bases as well, but thankfully this subsides after the first few episodes where the series eschews the constant slow motion/sped up fight scenes that were obnoxious then and are still obnoxious now in favor of some smoother cinematography. The show also uses a predictably sun bleached and overly gritty palette, but in its defense, it is called Spartacus: Blood And Sand, so you have to at least half way expect that going into it. It'll be interesting to see where the series goes from here. As it moves through its second half it does get more politically inspired and it's all the better and more interesting for it. Though it has likely built its core audience from the sex and blood, it's clever writing and interesting stories that will ultimately hold that audience and if DeKnight and company can ramp up that aspect in the follow ups that are planned, many of us will probably come back for a second round.The Blu-ray:
Spartacus: Blood And Sand - The Complete First Season arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p 1.78.1 widescreen high definition presentation that really looks very good. The show is shot in a fairly specific way with a lot of attention paid to color reproduction and style, but this doesn't come at the cost of fine detail. The image is certainly a stylized one, but close up shots often times look reference quality with long distance and medium shots also generally impressing. As the series progresses, you'll start to pick up on just how much picture information there really is here, noting how facial hair and stubble differ from character to character and noticing the craggy lines in various faces that appear throughout the show. Detail isn't limited to just the actors, however - the texture that you'll notice in the costumes worn throughout the show is impressive as is the amount of detail that you'll pick up on seen in the various sets that are used. Black levels generally look nice and strong without sucking out the shadow detail while color reproduction is typically very good, though sometimes leaning towards the hotter side of the palette, obviously a stylistic choice on the part of the producers. There are a few spots where this 'hot' looks makes some of the darker scenes a bit too bright looking and the series does tend to really pump up the reds of the bloodshed that is so frequently seen on screen (again, a stylistic choice, but one that might irritate some), but aside from that, this series looks excellent.Sound:
The English language Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix that this set sports is pretty great stuff. Surround activity is a constant, particularly during the action sequences, and there are a lot of really impressive directional effects to marvel over. Levels are well balanced throughout while the show's dialogue stays clean and consistently easy to understand. The score is punchy and powerful enough to really punctuate some of the more dramatic moments, as a good score should, without overpowering the performers. Generally this is a very active series and the mix here represents that really nicely. Every clank and clash of a sword is audible, as is every crack of a whip - the action scenes benefit the most from the surround activity but even more dramatic moments have some nice ambient noise in the background to fill things in really well. The low end is particularly strong, offering thundering bass when the material calls for it but not to the point where the rest of the mix gets lost. There aren't any alternate language audio tracks offered but, but optional English closed captions are provided, as are optional Spanish subtitles.Extras:
The extras in this set are quite plentiful and spread across all four discs as follows:
Disc One: The first disc features commentaries on these episodes - The Red Serpent features input from director Rick Jacobson, writer/producer/series creator Steven DeKnight, executive Producer Rob Tapert and executive producer Joshua Donen; Sacramentum Gladiatorium teams up director Rick Jacobson Steven S. DeKnight, and Rob Tapert; while The Thing In The Pit features director Jesse Warn and actor Andy Whitfield. This disc also offers extended versions of the first two episodes.
Disc Two: The second disc also includes a few commentaries - Shadow Games features a commentary with director Michael Hurst, Andy Whitfield and actress/Warrior Princess Lucy Lawless; Delicate Things includes input from Rick Jacobson, Steven S. DeKnight, and actor Erin Cummings. Also look for extended versions of Shadow Games, Delicate Things and Mark Of The Brotherhood.
Disc Three: More commentaries on this third disc, starting with cast members Andy Whitfield, Lucy Lawless, and Viva Bianca covering the Whore and Party Favors episodes; Revelations teams up Writer Brent Fletcher with DeKnight and actor Nick Taraby. That's it for this disc, no extended versions.
Disc Four: Since this fourth and final disc in the set includes only one actual episode, Kill Them All, which includes a commentary from DeKnight and cast members Peter Mensah and Katrina Law, it makes sense that the bulk of the supplements would be included here. Most of the featurettes are pretty interesting, though they're all on the brief side. First up is Spartacus: Blood And Sand - Behind The Scenes (14:50), a general look at how the production is handled by way of a series of cast and crew interviews. Here we learn about the writing process, the show's unique look, and more. We also get a good feel for the training that the cast members have to go through in order to make for convincing period combatants. Spartacus: Battle Royale (7:26) goes more in-depth into the action scenes and shows us how some of the more memorable action set pieces that are scattered throughout this first season were put together, while Gladiator Boot Camp (4:21) is, as the title explains, a more specific look at what's involved as far as prepping the cast members to play their gladiatorial roles. Between these three featurettes, you'll definitely garner an appreciation for just how physically intense this series can get for those who appear in front of the camera.
Grime And Punishment: The Hole (4:55) is a piece that gets into the nitty-gritty on how this one particular moment from the show was constructed while Andy Gets Plastered (2:44) shows how leading man Andy Whitfield had to have a full body mold made out of plaster for the series and what all was involved in that rather uncomfortable looking process. The Legend Reimagined (4:00) offers up some interesting insight into the writing process and how the team opt to take creative liberties with the series' historical accuracy in order to make for more entertaining viewing, while Oh Those Randy Romans (6:14) is, as you could probably have guessed, a peek at how the many love scenes that are scattered throughout the first season were put together. Yowza! Rounding out the fourth disc are Shooting Green: The Shadow Of Death (4:48), which is a look into how green screen technology is used throughout the show and how this can create both obstacle and opportunity for those involved, Exposing Your Ludus (5:21), a collection of humorous moments from the set, and a trailer called Spartacus: Vengeance (1:31), which is a promo for the series and the only high definition supplement in the collection.
Most of the commentary tracks are pretty scene specific so if you want to learn about any one particular aspect of one particular episode, odds are pretty good that it'll be covered (if it's one of the episodes that has a commentary, and as you can see, most of them do). You get a feel as you listen to the tracks that all involved had a lot of fun working on the show and that they really appreciate just how hard everyone worked on the series. The tracks are also quite interesting in that they offer up a lot of input on the writing process and the directing process but also let those who work in front of the camera chime in as well. This results in a pretty well rounded look at the making of this series.
Each episode in the set also includes MovieIQ Connectivity (for online enabled players), a Spartacus Pop Up History track, and episode synopsis/recaps to make it easy to get up to speed. Classy animated menus and episode selection accompany each disc. The packaging for the set is also nice and worth mentioning. The four discs are housed inside a hardcover book with a metallic cover which in turn fits inside a plastic slipcase to keep it from getting scuffed. Inside the book there are content listings for each disc outlining which episodes and supplements are included and where.
It might take a few episodes to really get into the swing of things and to find its proper pace, but Spartacus Blood And Sand eventually winds up being a lot of fun. While it's sometimes a bit derivative of some better known big budgeted Hollywood sword and sandal films of the last few years, it winds up being a pretty entertaining series. Yes, it's absolutely gratuitous in the sex and violence department, but that sort of adds to the fun and once the show starts venturing into both gladiatorial and political arenas, the show becomes considerably more than just a series of gory set pieces and sex scenes. Starz/Anchor Bay's Blu-ray release looks and sounds fantastic and contains a load of solid extra features, making this collection one that fans of the show will really appreciate. Spartacus: Blood And Sand - The Complete First Season comes highly recommended!