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5 Reasons SPARTACUS Was a Visionary TV Show

Friends, readers, countrymen, lend me your ears: though the Starz original series Spartacus ended its four-season (well, three seasons and a prequel miniseries) over a year ago, the arrival of a new complete series box set means it’s time for a re-evaluation of the premium cable channel’s most popular show to date.

Inspired by the famous story of the gladiator-turned-liberator who led a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic more than 2,000 years ago, Spartacus attracted plenty of media attention with its graphic depictions of violence and nudity.  But the Steven S. DeKnight-created show held to a set of principles that made it more intriguing – and more entertaining – than your average guilty pleasure.  Here are five reasons that Spartacus made people sit up and take notice.

It was an equal opportunity “gazer.”

It’s difficult to find a portrayal of ancient Rome in modern media that doesn’t try to emphasize the more extreme elements of its cultural bacchanalia, but Spartacus was gunning for a high score.  And a big part of that mission was to even the odds of gender-based objectification.  The overwhelming amount of beefcake is both immediately noticeable and incredibly pervasive – it’s no coincidence that a chunk of the first season takes place in the middle of a scorching heat wave.  The male characters seem to spend the majority of their time in their skivvies and – in a strange conflation of leering exploitation and long-awaited realism – ditch any thought of strategically-placed towels when in the locker room.

It was interested in regular people.

Any number of history books can tell you how Spartacus’ story ends.  What kept the show lively, especially in the early going, was the attention paid to the day-to-day lives of Romans from ladder-climing aristocrats to lowly domestic slaves.  In particular, the financial and emotional stresses of the Batiatus family – a noble couple played by John Hannah and Lucy Lawless – were a fascinating counterbalance to the titular character’s rising political power.  That’s unique in historical fiction, where the “Great Man” theory usually holds sway.  Though an excellent show in its own right, HBO’s Rome felt the need to cut away from the stories of its two working class protagonists for frequent peeks into the Senate; later, these characters would have a Zelig-like propensity for bumping into personages of historical importance.  Spartacus the man may be a legend, but Spartacus the show didn’t forget the little guy.

Spartacus

It understood the power of visual effects.

Visual effects can augment or embellish a scene, adding landscapes or objects or entire characters that would be difficult or impossible to achieve through conventional means.  Visual effects can also effectively define the tone and mood of a project, creating an entirely imagined and distinctive reality.  Once again, Spartacus chose the more extreme option, which was entirely effective for achieving its goals.  Yes, its prodigious use of green screen was blindingly obvious, and the gratuitous CGI blood effects threatened to become self-parody, but the show’s hyper-stylized look nodded to the influence of 300 and helped it emphasize the story’s larger-than-life qualities with limited resources.  (And, to be fair, there are also plenty of built sets and stellar practical effects from the impressive gore makeup to the bruising stunt work that prevent Spartacus from resembling a Star Wars prequel.)

It invented sexposition.

Game of Thrones gets all the credit for combining information and copulation, but Spartacus introduced the concept nearly a year before, in all its variations.  Sex in Spartacus is established as a perfunctory element from the very beginning.  This may be a dubious distinction, but given the show’s unabashed appetite for salacious subject matter and casual nudity, it fits better than in an ostensibly “serious” and weighty production such as Thrones.  

It knew exactly what kind of show it was – and embraced it.

Though nobody would mistake it for Breaking Bad or any of the grim, viscerally-appealing dramas that followed in its wake, there is still a transgressive aspect to Spartacus in an “I-can’t-believe-they-actually-made-this” way.  It aims for a very specific type of storytelling, pulpy and bloodthirsty and relentless, while suggesting parallels between its audience and the decadent world onscreen.  However, it never judged the viewer, nor did it allow its thesis to be overwhelmed by moral bankruptcy.  Spartacus is ultimately a classic hero’s journey stretched to the most extreme limits of taste that its medium (and the censors) would allow – a proud tradition in storytelling from ancient epics to gratuitously violent cable shows.

What was your favorite Spartacus moment?  Let us know in the comments!

Spartacus: The Complete Series is available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon

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The Author

Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler is a film critic and correspondent for Screen Invasion, as well as the founder of Ambler Amblog (http://ambleramblog.blogspot.com/). His parents named him after a Welsh spy novelist they found in a reference book. Someday he will get around to watching all the VHS tapes he bought at Goodwill.