With its Spartacus franchise, Starz stumbled into something of a guilty pleasure goldmine. It’s a campy swords-and-sandals epic boasting equal parts violence, soft-core sex, and hammy dialogue. But there’s a beating heart pounding beneath it all, and that’s ultimately what holds me in. I seriously can't get enough of these shows.
For the uninitiated, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is a six-part prequel to the action of Spartacus: Blood and Sand—a vamp intended to delay filming on Blood and Sand while star Andy Whitfield received treatment for cancer. Whitfield’s health ultimately prevented him from returning; Australian actor Liam McIntyre will take his place. And though Whitfield’s presence will be missed, Gods still managed to come out of the gate swinging like a... well, like a gladiator!
Friday's season premiere began with a blood-drenched flash-forward to the Blood and Sand season finale, which showed us how gladiator wrangler Bataitus (John Hannah) will meet his gruesome end at Spartacus’s hand. But that was then, and this is now: Five years earlier, to be precise, where Bataitus and his eternally scheming wife, Lucretia (Lucy Lawless)—both looking younger and hungrier, like an early-’80s Donald and Ivana Trump—observe their rookie fighters duking it out at the local gore-atorium. Yup. Just another day at the Gladiator races.
Bataitus has taken over operations of the ludus, a.k.a. The University of Gladiator Studies (go Glators!). To show you just how different things are, his future rival Solonius (Craig Walsh Wrightson) is currently Bataitus’s total bro-fidante. (Solonius looks a lot like Roger Daltry with librarian hair. I guess that was the style back in the prequel days!)
While Bataitus has plenty of enemies who’d love nothing more than to see his Gladiator Emporium go belly-up, he also has an ace up his sleeve: Gannicus (Dustin Clare), a.k.a. Colin Farrell on Growth Hormones. Gannicus is an invincible brute who loves chopping up rivals almost as much as he loves getting wasted on wine and having sex with multiple women.
In related news, Gannicus’s mom smokes Parliament Lights and is really proud of him—but she’s tighter with his older brother, who’s a crack addict.
Over in the ladies’ quarters, Gaia (Dexter’s Jaime Murray) is a social climber with designs on Lucretia. She smokes her on some primo opium before putting on the lesbian moves. I’ve heard of Xena fan-worship before, but this is getting uncomfortable.
Not to be outdone, the gladiator quarters are more homoerotic-y than ever.
Auctus and Barca! Keep it in your loincloths!
Things end on a very exciting note, as Gannicus is forced to fight a man in a public square—while wearing a blindfold. He takes a Roman screwdriver to the neck, but in the end, makes mincemeat of his opponent.
In the final scene, Tullius (Stephen Lovett), who is sort of the Tony Soprano of ancient Rome, makes Bataitus an offer he can’t refuse: Give him Gannicus, or else. Amazingly, Bataitus finds a way to refuse the generous opportunity to part with his star gladiator. That earns him a serious beating, followed by Tullius urinating on his face.
Hey, if you wanna play with the big boys, you’re going to get brutally beaten and then peed on. That’s just the way it goes.