Spartacus: Blood and Sand was probably my favorite tv show last year. It was a soap opera for dudes. Overflowing with stylized decapitations, blood spray and hot naked chicks. The look of the show was blatantly ripped off of 300, right down to the CG backgrounds and super slow mo sword thrusts (literally and figuratively). Normally, I hate that shit, but this show was just all kinds of right. It helped that it had a great cast. John Hanna as Batiatus, the owner of the gladiatorial ludus with Lucy Lawless playing his scheming wife Lucretia. Manu Bennett as the kickass Crixus, Champion of Capua and Peter Mensah as Oenomaus, that gladiatorial disciplinarian. Viva Bianca became my crush of the year. But without a doubt, Andy Whitfield made the show work with his deeply sympathetic role as Spartacus. He totally embodied what Spartacus should be: a good dude who got screwed over and lost his wife into slavery. You totally rooted for Spartacus the entire time because he didn’t feel like a larger than life character. He was just an average dude forced into extraordinary circumstances. In a sea of blood and titties, the cast elevated what could have been pulp nonsense into something really awesome.
Then Spartacus got cancer.
Any fan of the show knows the story by now, but long story short, Whitfield got cancer. As he was getting treatment, Starz decided rather than delay the show for a year, they’d make a 6 episode prequel that showed what the characters were up to before Spartacus showed up. I didn’t mind the concept as much as other people because I liked all these characters, so seeing a few episodes of their earlier adventures didn’t bother me while waiting for Whitfield to recover. Unfortunately, Whitfield’s cancer returned and Starz was put in the weird situation of having to either cancel their show, or find a new Spartacus. With Whitfield’s blessing, they recast and are currently in production on Season 2 of Blood and Sand. So for now, fans get a chance to see what everyone was up to a few years before Sparty arrived.
Just like with Blood and Sand, Netflix Instant is posting each new episode of Gods of the Arena on its streaming service, so you can watch it as it happens. I love that, by the way. Thank the gods! Anyway, on to the review…
“Past Transgressions” opens with major spoilers. If you haven’t seen Blood and Sand yet, definitely watch it before you start up Gods of the Arena because this episode opens by showing all the major characters that were killed at the end of Season 1 (which was one of the most badass season closing shows I’ve ever seen. Just mad carnage all over the place). I’m not sure why they decided to do this, especially since new viewers will probably be easily confused. I can see a lot of people who come to this thinking “Well, I’ll watch the prequel first” and then having the entire thing spoiled for them. Why would you even do that? Pretty dumb decision.
But anyway, this episode chronicles Batiatus as he attempts to secure a slot for his gladiators at the upcoming games. We’re introduced to Gannicus, who is set up as a rock star of the gladiatorial world. He clearly revels in how awesome he is by mocking his opponents, basking in the glow of the adoring crowd, and participating in a drunken threesome. He’s pretty much the complete opposite of Spartacus and for me, it was hard to give a shit about him. He’s “bigger than life” from the moment we are introduced to him and this first episode doesn’t give any clear insight into his feelings about anything. Is he upset at being a slave? Does he care about honor and glory? Is he self-destructive? We’re not shown, which makes this a little tougher to accept, unlike Spartacus who is clearly motivated by finding his wife and trying to do whatever he can to earn his freedom. I actually thought to myself “Why does Gannicus even need to be the focus?”
I asked this because this episode shows how Crixus ended up in the House of Batiatus. Crixus was the perfect foil to Spartacus and was the ultimate bad ass. His character went through a really great arc, first being the prick gunning for Spartacus, to saving Spartacus’s ass at the expense of his own honor and glory because of his moral code of brotherhood, to ultimately helping Spartacus break the slaves out of the the ludus. I’d watch a prequel that focused on him, for sure, and hopefully the subsequent episodes delve into his story a bit more, though here he does show his moral character and dedication which appears in spades in Blood and Sand.
Another character I really enjoyed from B&S was Peter Mensah’s Oenamaus. Here, we see him trying to regain his form after his battle with Theocoles. Here, he has to deal with Batiatus overlooking him for rising star Gannicus, even though he feels he has successfully recovered from his near fatal wounds. He’s also got a slave wife named Melitta who doesn’t do much in this episode other than get naked and play the dutiful wife. Speaking of Batiatus, he is getting himself into trouble again. He’s trying to escape from his father’s shadow and run an even more successful ludus. When Gannicus wins a fight blindfolded, he arouses the attention of a local rich patron who wants to buy Gannicus to put in another ludus which he owns a stake in. Things don’t end well for Batiatus.
The other character that is introduced is Gaia, played by Jamie Murray, who most people will remember played Dexter’s crazy british girlfriend in Season 2. Here, she takes over what was essentially Viva Bianca’s Ilythia role in B&S, that is, a friend of Lucretia who is into crazy hot sex and rich men. She doesn’t do much in the first episode other than get Lucretia into some opium soaked lesbian sex, but with her bright red hair and troublemaker attitude, you can tell that this is where Lucretia ends up getting her evil ways (at one point, Lucretia expresses disgust in even thinking about sleeping with a gladiator “slave”. We all know how that turns out).
This show is known for its sex and violence. And episode 1 of Gods of the Arena is stuffed with it. There are boobs everywhere. All of the main actresses get naked, including Lucy Lawless, who puts in two sex scenes. There’s a threesome with Gannicus and two Roman sluts. Chicks show their tittays in the arena. Oenomaus’ wife gives up the goods. Dexter’s crazy bitch girlfriend lezzies up with Xena. Glory be to the gods! The violence is just as nuts in this one. There are a couple gladiatorial fights including one where a dude’s throat is grinded against a sword. Heads are decapitated complete with stylized blood sprays. There’s probably a bit more sex in this one than violence, because there is a lot of dialogue that tries to explain to audiences just what exactly is going on, but if you want boobs and blood, then this first episode delivers.
Overall, this first episode was a’ight. If you liked the non-Spartacus characters from B&S like Crixus, Oenamaus, and Batiatus then you’ll get that sense of cool again. Barca and Ashur also make appearances as gladiators, as does Batiatus’ friend (soon to be enemy) Solonius and Naevia, pre-Crixus love object. I liked the episode for those characters. I’m absolutely not sold on the new characters. Gannicus is boring, Gaia is a less interesting carbon copy of Viva Bianca’s Ilythia (NSFW), and Melitta is wholly uninteresting. Tullius and Vettius, who are the main rivals of Batiatus have potential. But this is only the first episode, so they have a chance to warm on me. I’m not going to write them off completely just yet. I also couldn’t help but feel this episode looked a little “cheap”. Like, I feel that B&S looked a little better and didn’t show its low-budget-y-ness as much. I’m sure most of the budget is going to season 2, but you notice the difference in the opening fight scene. There is also a decided sense of pandering that oozes from this first episode. There is almost too much going on. I like most of these characters, I could have gone with less sex and a little more of Ashur, Barca, Crixus, etc. Hey, female nudity is always welcome in this show, but with only 6 episodes, I don’t need to be overwhelmed with it at the expense of more scenes with cool characters, you know?
I liked this episode but wasn’t slobbering over it. If you liked B&S, you’ll dig this first episode. It can be a little flat at times, but the inclusion of so many good characters is welcome. With only 5 more episodes, I’ll be interested to see if they do switch their focus to Crixus and away from Gannicus. I’m hoping that story line is just a weird misdirection.
Below is a 15 minute promo of Gods of the Arena with interviews with the actors, etc. Check it out and see if it’s something you might like. NOTE: Careful, thar be Season 1 spoilers in the vid.