In Anticipation, Spartacus & Downton Abbey

Well the holiday season is a time for marathon viewing. In anticipation of the return of 2 of my favorite programmes, Spartacus and Downton Abbey;  I thought I would revisit the previous installments.

Spartacus: Blood and Sand has a seriously amazing pedigree. The show-runner is Steven S. De Knight who has worked on many of Joss Whedon’s (Buffy tVS) shows. Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert also produce it, and boy have they come a long way from Their Evil Dead, Hercules & Xena days.

Spartacus: B&S is a 13 part series that debuted 2 years ago on the Starz cable network. It was picked up by The Movie Network here in Canada and I probably would have avoided it if my husband had not expressed some interest. The teasers revealed buff gladiators in combat in a highly stylized CGI gorefest reminiscent of the movie “300.” I had not watched “300” but wandered into the family room whilst my husband was watching it on DVD and asked if I was missing anything good. He knows me well enough to say “not really, mostly cool action, not much story.” With that endorsement, I happily found something else to occupy myself with. I can only handle so much “cool action” when there is not much story. Needless to say, my approach to Spartacus: B&S was pretty negatively biased (did I mention that I did not like gore? Yes that irony is not lost on anyone who knows me well.) The first episode left me rather indifferent, battle scenes and expository dialogue to set up the main conflict. My husband wanted to give it a few more episodes and I am glad I stuck it out with him. By the 2nd episode, I was hooked.

Spartacus: B&S tells the story of an unnamed Thracian auxillary roman warrior who is enslaved by the Romans for defying the orders of his double-crossing commander. He escapes death and becomes a gladiator and is renamed Spartacus after the legendary Thracian leader of the infamous slave revolt. We watch him adjust to a new life, new friends and enemies while he stifles ambitions for freedom and reunion with his wife. The result is a compulsive tale of love, friendship, betrayal, revenge and social hierarchy.

But this show has a powerful ensemble, and many of the themes describing Spartacus’ struggles are wonderfully paralleled when we watch the life of Spartacus’ master, Batiatus and his wife Lucretia. Not satisfied with their social standing as owners of a ludus (gladiator training facility) and with political office in mind, they try to navigate the intricacies of Roman society using love, friendship, betrayal, revenge as their tools. The other supporting characters are more than window dressing. Their stories are interesting and integral to the overall story arc. How the writers manage to weave different characters into a stunning tapestry is remarkable. I challenge anyone to find a loose thread.

The stories are wonderfully constructed, with twists that defy prediction. No one can be trusted. Oh yes, do not get too attached to anyone, either.  Life in ancient Rome seems pretty cheap, especially if you are a slave. The dialogue is poetic as much as it is profane. Yet it rings true to the world that is presented. Kudos to Stephen DeKnight, he captured my interest and kept me guessing from episode to episode. There are no wasted scenes. Everything on screen is critical to the layers of the stories that unfold to a most satisfying conclusion. Although several times along the way I would catch moments of “What???”.

The acting is amazing, John Hannah (Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Mummy) plays power hungry, social climbing, backstabbing, devious Batiatus with aplomb. This is a role that can easily be pushed over the top but never is. He meets his match in his wife and the role is performed exquisitely by Lucy Lawless (Xena). The late Andy Whitfield captured my heart with his earnest portrayal of Spartacus. Propelled by love for his wife and his hope of reunion, he learns to play the game of enslaved gladiator yet maintains his humanity in such a brutal world. The supporting cast is stupendous.

Shortly after the season ended, Andy Whitfield  was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Production was delayed for season 2 and a 6 episode prequel mini-series Spartacus: Gods of the Arena was produced. Unfortunately, Whitfield succumbed to his disease, at age 39, on Sept 11, 2011.

The role had been recast with Whitfield’s blessing.

Andy Whitfield

Liam McIntyre

Can the fans be satisfied with the upcoming season? If the Spartacus:Gods of the Arena  prequel is any indication, then YES, we want to see more stories from these writers involving these characters. The prequel fleshed out the back stories of the supporting cast in addition to having introduced a new hero. It was as good as the original series. I will miss Andy Whitfield, but I look forward to revisiting this world and trust that the producers know what they are doing.

Spartacus is not for everyone; there is foul language, graphic violence, and excessive nudity, both male and female that makes a show like True Blood look puritanical. At times these elements actually distracted from the narrative flow, but just a bit. The storytelling is quite compelling.

Downton Abbey returns for a 2nd series in a few days; I can barely wait. I just finished rewatching the 1st series and was just as enraptured as I was a year ago, when I first laid eyes on it. PBS Masterpiece is a programme that I watch sporadically, depending on what is airing. I had heard so many good things regarding this mini-series and having missed the initial airing, I bought the DVD’s blind on the recommendation of the gang at the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. This DVD should come with a warning; I could not stop watching once I started. Seven episodes were devoured in a weekend.

Written by Oscar winner Julian Fellows (Gosford Park), DA is an upstairs/ downstairs Edwardian tale that is set in England at the estate of the Earl of Grantham, the titular Downton Abbey. The stories revolve around the Crawley family, which include the earl, his wife the countess, his three daughters and his mother, the dowager countess and their staff of servants. There is love, loyalty, a sense of duty, jealousy, vindictiveness, deception and blackmail among his lordship’s family and his staff. The writing is top notch and so recognized with an Emmy award last fall. Every character of this vast ensemble is unique. The attention to detail in what is said and not said is a triumph.

The characters are written so well. They are flawed and petty at times and then can be incredibly kind. I especially love the way the rivalry among the sisters is captured. Maggie Smith as the dowager countess leads a remarkable cast. The countryside landscapes are breathtaking. Hmmm, great writing, great casting, great scenery, the only thing missing in this period piece is Judi Dench, LOL! As a bonus, I also learned a lot about the hierarchy of English society, of which I was completely ignorant.

In some ways this show is the opposite of Spartacus (clean language, no nudity or onscreen sex) but thematically there are many similarities. You have groups of people who can be divided into the haves and have nots. Some are content with their station, whereas others are not. How these groups deal with the changing of the times creates conflict and gripping stories.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: 2011 – 2012 TV Season Wrap Up – part 2 « What is Ann Watching?

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