Spartacus and Downton Abbey: A Tale of Two TV Shows

I enjoy a well crafted period piece. Two shows that have been on my must watch list have been Downton Abbey and Spartacus. They both reflect tragedies of different scope and magnitude with common themes that run through them. The biggest tragedy is that Downton Abbey has made me feel like I was wasting my time and it is no longer on my list of must see TV. Writer Julian Fellowes frittered away a perfectly good setup established in the first season on 2 subsequent seasons of utter nonsense, which thankfully concluded some weeks ago. Whereas the last chapter of Spartacus, subtitled War of the Damned came to an end this weekend. The subtitle practically gives away the tragic outcome to those few unfamiliar with either the legend or the 1960 Kirk Douglas film. Despite this knowledge, writer/producer Steven DeKnight and his team delivered one of my favorite hours of television this season. I imagine it will only be topped by what the final chapter of Breaking Bad has to offer this summer.

Warning, the adult and graphic nature of Spartacus makes the embedded video NSFW. On the other hand, you are safe with Downton Abbey.

Spartacus is a pop culture punching bag that can easily be dismissed as porno violent trash. And to do so would be to overlook a compelling, intricately plotted and heroic character driven story that has been retold since ancient times. This incarnation epitomizes everything that I like in a TV series. It has tight story-telling with plot twists in equilibrium with character development. There is good acting and yes, lots of eye-candy for all sexual proclivities. This show crafts a unique language that is poetic yet hilariously profane, reminiscent of Deadwood. Like Deadwood, I will not argue for the authenticity of the history or language style because I have no interest in such things. I find it beautiful and it transports me. As in Deadwood, I caution that this show is aimed at an adult audience and is not for everyone. The violence is brutal and at times I must avert my eyes. The sexuality and nudity were beyond what I have ever seen on cable (full frontal, both sexes) and at times can be a distraction from an intricately plotted hero’s journey.

I have hooked a number of friends onto this show and I always caution them that the first few episodes of Spartacus were not the best (however far from the worst TV I have ever watched). I remember watching the 1st episode because my husband was intrigued by the premise and I was ready to dismiss it as a 300 style graphic gore-fest. I persisted beyond the pilot based on his interest and by the 2nd episode, I was hooked. I consider myself to be merciless in my assessment of shows based on the first episode. Thankfully, the kernels of greatness were hinted at, thanks to John Hannah and Lucy Lawless in their amazingly colorful and villainous portrayals of Batiatus and Lucretia.

The stellar pedigree (Stephen DeKnight, Robert Tapert, Jed Whedon) also brought goodwill to the initial episodes. This show’s first season got better and better with each subsequent episode. There was not a wasted scene. The story kept me guessing with plenty of twists, yet like Breaking Bad, everything made sense in retrospect. Character motivation was as important to the story as the story itself. In 13 episodes, the first season, subtitled Blood and Sand, depicted Spartacus’ journey as a free man of Thrace to serving in the Roman army auxiliary forces only to be enslaved, followed by a rise to glory in the gladiatorial arena and beyond. There was not a moment wasted.

Then tragedy struck for all those with a stake in this production when star, Andy Whitfield (Spartacus) developed lymphoma.

Production was delayed when there was initial hope of cure and the time was filled with a thoroughly entertaining 6 episode prequel, subtitled Gods of the Arena. The prequel introduced a new character, Gannicus (Dustin Clare) and set the foundation for the stories that lay ahead. Gannicus would play a more prominent role and introduce levity in subsequent seasons as Spartacus became the leader a slave rebellion that plagued Rome for years. At the same time, the prequel allowed me to spend more time with great villainous characters and fleshed out their motivations for some pretty heinous acts.

When Whitfield relapsed and had to bow out of the next full season, the decision was made to recast and Liam McIntyre stepped into some pretty big shoes. Tragically Andy Whitfield died in 2011. But McIntyre did a beautiful job, made the role his own and continued the hero’s journey over the next 2 seasons (20 episodes in total) to an amazing conclusion this weekend.

So I have tried to keep this spoiler free, but hope that this post piques some interest in anyone who thinks they can handle the adult content. In 39 episodes this TV series had a clear vision of the story it wanted to tell. A clearly defined historical end point was conducive. The story moved at a break neck pace; it did not stray from purpose and everything tied together. Although the actions and motivations may have seemed puzzling at first, everything that happened made sense in retrospect. And yet this grizzled TV veteran could rarely guess what was about to happen as I watched from week to week with heart-felt anticipation.

This serialized drama knew how to tell a story about characters that I cared about, heroes and villains alike. It had very strong female characters that were intelligent, cunning and propelled the narrative. The villains are very compelling, a far cry from the moustache twirlers in Downton Abbey. I can’t help but empathize with many of them, because I have been given an opportunity to understand them. I saw their struggles and watched them bend, twist and warp in response to the forces within and around themselves. The stakes were high and it was heartbreaking at times. I tried not to get too attached to anyone, but it was impossible. And I cried many times, but not so hard as when the final credit rolled.

This series covered a gamut of themes, love, family, friendship, honor, commitment, destiny, religion, glory, bullying, class structure, racism, politics, the meaning and value of life and death. Very similar again to Downton Abbey. However, in Spartacus, the fights were stylishly choreographed and stood a wonder to gaze upon, even if I was peeking through fingers due to the excess. This show embraced its limited budget and reinforced my belief that if there was an imaginative story to tell, budget limitations could be overlooked (just check out Doctor Who episode “Blink”, or any episode of the Misfits).

And now Spartacus, the TV series is over, and yet I know I would watch it again (will that be the 3rd or 4th time?). This show offered an emotional thrill ride like no other. It did not over stay its welcome. I believe it has spoiled me; it has made me impatient with TV series that seem to be spinning their wheels. There is something to be said for a limited episode run and well thought out narrative. Spartacus ranks with Breaking Bad in that department.

Which brings me to Downton Abbey, sigh! This is another historical TV series, this time set in the declining British aristocracy of the early 20th century.

This series started strong as it introduced us to an ensemble cast of colorful characters. But after 3 short seasons I am done with it. It is everything that Spartacus is not. The plot is repetitive, contrived, muddled and pointless. It is unclear in its character motivations. Seriously, Julian Fellowes (Oscar and Emmy winning writer) should watch Spartacus to see how character development should be done. Instead, I gritted my teeth as I watched the young aristocratic daughter, Sybil marry the rebellious chauffeur, Tom Branson, because……..I don’t really know why. Honestly, I liked Sybil and Branson as individual characters, with what little I saw of them. But did I buy that she would chuck it all for him? He’s not that good-looking. I saw so little of them together; it is no wonder her parents flipped out. What a wasted opportunity to convince me of the merit of this man, especially when it now seems that he is going to be a key player in season 4. All the villains are cartoonish. And the main characters behave arbitrarily idiotic it was hard to empathize with anyone. I could never understand what Matthew ever saw in Mary; she was such a mean self-centered snob.

Instead, time was wasted on too many subplots that went nowhere, such as the butler, Carson being blackmailed, Mrs. Hughes’ faux romance. This soapy trite continued into subsequent seasons with Lord Grantham’s sister s drama, Mrs. Padmore’s faux romance, the scarred war veteran con-man heir imposter and his fake romance with Edith, blech. To add insult to injury, rather than fleshing out characters that Fellowes established in season 1, he just thrust them into random ridiculous scenarios and introduced more characters that I could not care less about. Yes, I meant maids Ethel, Edna, Jane and cousin Rose. Talk about clutter. This made me stop caring about the characters as they were inconsistently drawn to serve silly plots. It was hard to believe that this show was written predominantly by one person and he was an award winner to boot. It seemed like a random writer with no prior knowledge was pulled off the street for each episode in seasons 2 and 3. If anything could happen in such an utterly slapdash fashion, then the stakes are low and I no longer care to watch.

The executive decision to kill off Downton Abbey characters with inadequate set-up was the last straw for me. Clearly I have no problem with characters getting killed off, but in such a sloppy fashion is insulting. This was born from the fact that the actors no longer wanted to participate in the series and punctuated how shoddy the writing had become. If the Spartacus producers could recast the TITLE role due to unforeseen circumstances, then surely Julian Fellowes could have set up better exits for his characters rather than relying on deus ex machine. Or if he had really satisfying story arcs, recasting could have been overlooked. Instead, this show has devolved into a bunch of characters I can’t empathize with who act randomly in stories that no longer interest me. Even Maggie Smith as the indomitable dowager countess and her razor-sharp quips are not enough to keep me tuned in. I will just catch up with her on YouTube.

So, I am done with watching Downton Abbey. I would rather watch Spartacus again, and find out what happens to the DA crew from my friends who are still watching or read brief recaps online.

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