'Spartacus: Gods of the Arena'

A guilty pleasure that ought to appeal to the same folks who gave its predecessor a thumb's up by the channel's standards, pointing the way toward lusty escapism.

“Spartacus: Blood and Sand” became an unlikely hit for Starz — a holdover from the previous regime that unwittingly helped chart the channel’s creative direction. Unabashedly trashy, the inevitable prequel’s stylized violence, buckets of blood and generous dollops of sex featuring what look like (and mostly, act like) perfume models is clearly a guilty pleasure, and ought to appeal to the same folks who gave its predecessor a thumb’s up by the channel’s standards, pointing the way toward lusty escapism. Let’s just be grateful the Spartacus of the 1960 feature can’t see this, or he’d roll over on his cross.

A six-part limited series, “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” was birthed largely out of necessity, hoping to keep the embers burning while the show’s star, Andy Whitfield, sought treatment for cancer. (Whitfield — who is seen in a fleeting clip from the previous show — ultimately bowed out of the sequel that’s now in the works due to his health.)

“Gods of the Arena” thus brings back gladiator owner Batiatus (John Hannah) and his wife, Lucretia (Lucy Lawless), prior to the unhappy events (for them, anyway) of the earlier show, and before Spartacus’ arrival.

Ambitious, but at this point running a relatively small gladiator operation, Batiatus has one blue-chip player, as it were, in the brawny Gannicus (Dustin Clare), a showy, rock-star of a gladiator who dispatches foes with a beaming smile, and is rewarded with access to nubile maidens.

Alas, plans of hitting the big-time (there’s a clear element of “Gladiator” in all this, but being derivative is the least of its excesses) run into several snags. For starters, Batiatus immediately clashes with a haughty noble (Gareth Williams), leading to an inevitable showdown — by their top gladiators, naturally. Lucretia, meanwhile, has a widowed friend (Jaime Murray) arrive, introducing her to various temptations of the flesh; while gladiator trainer Oenomaus (Peter Mensah) is married to one of the slave girls (Marisa Ramirez), who, despite protestations to the contrary, keeps looking at Gannicus like he’s a big, sweaty dish of ice cream.

Still, worrying overly much about plot misses the point. “Spartacus” is all about atmosphere, and even its cheesy “300″-type visual style (a little more polished than last time) and slow-motion action exist entirely to advance that aspect. Moreover, the ancient setting allows for all sorts of gratuitousness, from communal bathroom scenes to sexual frolicking, reminding us (in about the closest this comes to commentary)that hedonism was hardly invented by the 1960s counterculture movement.

On the plus side, if you’re curious what somebody looks like naked, be patient: You seldom have to wait long to find out.

One needn’t be a prude, of course, to find this all a trifle over the top, but for Starz, such naysaying hardly matters. Having drawn blood with the first “Spartacus’?” simple-minded charms, there’s no exiting this arena until the last crimson drop has been wrung out of it — and in slow motion.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena

Limited series; Starz, Fri. Jan. 21, 10 p.m.

Production

Filmed in New Zealand by Tapert Donen Raimi in association with Starz Media. Executive producers, Robert Tapert, Sam Raimi, Joshua Donen, Steven S. DeKnight; producers, Chloe Smith, Rick Jacobson; co-producers, Brent Fletcher, Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, Charles Knight, Aaron Lam; director, Jesse Warn; writer, DeKnight.

Crew

Camera, Aaron Morton; production designer, Iain Aitken; editor, Allana H. Milne; music, Joseph LoDuca; executive visual effects supervisor, Charlie McClellan; makeup, prosthetics and hair designer, Jane O'Kane; casting, Paul Weber, Annabel Lomas, Faith Martin. 60 MIN.

Cast

With: John Hannah, Lucy Lawless, Dustin Clare, Peter Mensah, Jaime Murray, Marisa Ramirez, Jeffrey Thomas, Stephen Lovatt, Manu Bennett, Gareth Williams.
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