The tragic death of star Andy Whitfield notwithstanding — requiring his replacement by Liam McIntyre in the title role — “Spartacus: Vengeance” is up to the same old tricks, endeavoring to give gratuitous violence and sex a good name. And it sort of does, to the extent the series is so unabashed and creative about finding new ways to slay. Looking better than in the past (success has its privileges), the show won’t win many awards — unless there’s an Emmy for “most artful blood spray” — but it’ll nevertheless go down in history as the hour that put Starz on the original-programming map.
Although the series shares a name with the 1960 Stanley Kubrick-directed classic, it’s best not to dwell too much on that marketing-driven coincidence. Suffice to say having shed their slave owner, Spartacus (as played by McIntyre, physically fine but not overly charismatic) and his band of escaped gladiators are on the prowl for Roman blood, with the occasional respite for some sweaty screwing.
Mostly they function like a band of pirates, with Spartacus as the level-headed presence, trying to rein in the driven Crixus (Manu Bennett) and his lusty Gauls.
Recognizing the show isn’t defined by its line readings, the producers have upped the ante (if possible) on sheer titillation. Assaults on the Romans in the episodes previewed include a melee at an orgy, which is sort of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup for the show — combining two mainstays, sex and violence, in one. Aping the visuals of “300,” the battle sequences also revel in slow-motion attacks and streaming splatters that literally engulf the camera lens.
Among the drawbacks are the nobles, with Glaber (Craig Parker) set up as Spartacus’ strategic rival and Ilithyia (Viva Bianca) as his scheming spouse, who aren’t a particularly compelling bunch, aside from their wanton debauchery. Then again, producer Steven S. DeKnight is wise enough to know that despite the soap-opera elements there should never be more than a few minutes of dialogue without exposed breasts or a gruesome killing to prevent the target audience’s attention from lagging.
Students of history, of course (or even mere movie buffs), know the actual Spartacus’ story didn’t end all that happily — his slave revolt having been eventually defeated and the survivors crucified.
For now, though, his name serves the purpose of classing up a series with no higher aspirations than consistently surpassing the content boundaries of anything else in the permissive confines of pay cable. And insofar as the show contributes to loosening standards and deadening the senses, that bloody victory over the cultural scolds might just be “Spartacus’?” most enduring form of revenge.