"Spartacus" has arrived on Netflix -- hooray!
I've got your guide to binging on the gladiator drama right here: Read on for a roundup of links to reviews and interviews I published during the four-season run of the show.
But let's back up for a minute. You may be asking, "Are you serious? Why would I want to watch 'Spartacus'? Isn't it pretty much just people boinking and cutting each other's limbs off?"
Well, sure, amputations and sex are not exactly uncommon on the show, which ran for 39 blood-soaked episodes on Starz. But there's much more to "Spartacus" than sex, togas and violence. It's one of the most enjoyable dramas of the last decade, and I have been banging the drum for it since it debuted in early 2010.
Now that you can enjoy all of it in one lengthy, bloody binge, I'm here to spread the news again: This show worth taking a chance on. Here are the most important things to keep in mind as you begin your binge:
- The pilot episode, which I called "clunky" and "derivative" in my first review of "Spartacus," isn't a great advertisement for everything that follows. Keep watching anyway.
- It gets better fairly quickly. Subsequent episodes do a better job of setting up the characters Lucretia and Batiatus, the ambitious owners of the captured Thracian warrior, who is swiftly put to work in the arena. In the early going, Lucy Lawless and John Hannah, who play the scheming Roman couple, were the main reason I stuck with the show; from Day One, they were clearly having a blast depicting the couple's twisted yet weirdly loving relationship. The show swiftly began to excel at writing to their strengths, and during its run, "Spartacus" generally did a phenomenal job of casting actors who knew exactly how to play their colorful roles. There's a reason you keep seeing various members of the "Spartacus" cast in films and all over TV; these actors often have a lot presence, know how to kick ass and, given the right material, know how to deploy sly wit.
- Try to stick with "Spartacus" for at least four episodes to see whether it's for you. After four installments, if you simply find that the show's mix of drama, violence, melodrama and heightened "Spartacus"-speak isn't for you -- if the tone and the world just don't appeal to you -- well, fair enough. Thanks for giving it a shot.
- If you stick with Season 1 for four episodes, you are likely to develop a "Spartacus" addiction well before the energetic and engaging final third of the season. Fair warning: Your binge is likely to be life-consuming by the last few episodes of that first season. As they unfold, your jaw may hit the floor once or twice.
One of my favorite things to experience as a "Spartacus" evangelist is the string of texts, emails or direct messages I get when a friend begins a marathon of the first season. The progression of messages generally goes something like this: "Seriously, you want me to stick with this? Really?" "Sigh. Well, okay, I guess the gladiator battles are pretty good." "Haha, Lucy Lawless is killing me." "Okay, this is kind of fun." "Wait, am I developing feelings for these people? What is happening?? I'm confused!" "I … what … no!!" "Did that just happen? What the hell!?" and then a final string curse words.
At that point, I say, "Welcome to the 'Spartacus' fandom."
Will you experience this expansive range of reactions? Will you plunge directly into the next episodes once Season 1 ends, even if it's 3 a.m.? Based on anecdotal evidence, yes -- that is a realistic possibility. If you do stick with the show, here's what you'll find.
"Spartacus" is bawdy, lusty, over the top, bloody, adventurous and exciting, but all of that stuff is merely the icing on the cake. Underneath all of those colorful elements -- which make the show a lot of fun to watch -- is a meticulously constructed drama with a fantastically committed and ferocious heart. You might not guess this during the first episode or two, but "Spartacus" ends up being one of the most fervently and unabashedly political dramas I've ever seen. Creator Steven S. DeKnight worked on several Joss Whedon shows, and as I said more than once in my reviews, DeKnight learned well from his mentor.
We're still talking about "Buffy" decades after it debuted not because it had cool monsters, but because those monsters were smartly deployed in an intelligent, empathic, character-driven drama. Via the Scooby gang's heartbreaks and triumphs, we explored ideas about loyalty, maturity, friendship and moral consequences; we laughed and cried and were shocked at what the characters were capable of. Whatever you think of the heightened tone or the stylized language of "Spartacus" -- and I happen to enjoy those things a lot -- the gladiator saga is similarly obsessed with meaningful, difficult ideas. Underneath its well-executed surface pleasures, it has a lot to say about exploitation, oppression, altruism, greed and exclusion.
I enjoy on-screen orgies and decapitations as much as the next person (and one of the delightful things about this occasionally bonkers show is that a single scene can contain both those things), but there are serious ideas baked right into the premise of the show. "Spartacus" examines the idea that the enslavement of others, in body and mind, is a poison, and that poison is damaging not just to the enslaved but to those who treat others as objects to be owned and exploited. Like every retelling of the tale, this "Spartacus" saga has resonance for those of us living in the modern era. The 39 episodes of the show aren't just a thrill ride; they examine the idea that those who exclude others from the political process and ignore demands for autonomy from the oppressed put themselves and their societies in danger. Scan the headlines: You might find that the moral questions and power dynamics that "Spartacus" ruthlessly examined have quite a bit of relevance today.
No spoilers, but here are some thoughts I shared in my post on the show's series finale: "We know that this lusty drama is also tender. We know this violent drama is deeply humane and compassionate. We know that the ornate, profane language is also poetic. We know the violence and the sex are there for specific purposes, and the characters are often smart as hell. We are well aware that this saga of sex, swords and conquest actually has something important to say about freedom, oppression and equality."
If you stick with the show, you will, as every fan does, come up with a list of flaws and things you could have done without. Yes, it doesn't have a "Game of Thrones" budget and at times, that shows. Sure, some characters could be grating and some sub-plots were repetitive. But no show is perfect, and those minor stumbling blocks never interfered with the great pleasure I took in the show's unique fusion of bold action-adventure, canny melodrama and profanity-laced humanism.
And by the way, I can't think of many shows that did a more responsible job of depicting sexuality, nudity and rape. I've seen a lot of mockery of the sex on "Spartacus" by those who haven't seen it or haven't seen much of it. I haven't seen a ton of clear-eyed assessments of how intelligently these elements were deployed during the show's run. When it comes to those subjects, "Spartacus" regularly put far more expensive and widely praised shows to shame.
In the 15 years I've been a critic, there have been any number of debates about how sexuality, nudity and sexual violence have been employed on television. Many programs have lazily used those things to give their stories "edginess" or "darkness," or to give their program an unearned aura of adult sensuality. All too often, it's clear that many storytellers don't give depictions of sexuality or sexual violence any real thought; the same tropes, cliches and predictable points of view are shown again and again (so much so that it's worth celebrating when a show like "Outlander" does something radically different). It gets tiresome to have to point out depictions of sexuality and sexual violence that are exploitative, incomplete, clueless or simply offensive; they keep turning up with exhausting regularity on networks and shows that should really know better.
"Spartacus," on the other hand, is frequently exemplary in these areas, in part because of its consistent devotion to its premise. The whole show is about the use and abuse of bodies and a system that allowed an exclusive ruling class to have absolute power over every aspect of the lives of the less powerful. We saw characters freely enjoy each other's sexuality without shame, but DeKnight and his writers never forgot that every character existed within a power hierarchy that they rarely controlled.
The show was wonderfully respectful of female desire and agency, whether the women were in bed or in battle; it was also realistic about the fact that women (of all classes) had little power, and the less powerful the woman, the more common and accepted the abuse of her body and spirit. "Spartacus" isn't feminist because it handled rape with rare sensitivity: This drama -- which, by the way, successfully appealed to a dude-heavy audience -- is feminist because it depicted the gamut of the female experience with intelligence, nuance and compassion. The women were allowed to be as lusty -- and as angry and as devious and as kind -- as the guys.
"Spartacus" never shied away from depicting how excruciating it could be for all of the slaves when their sexuality and their desires were ignored, exploited or used against them. It frequently depicted physically strong male gladiators being used as pawns for their owners' amusement, and showed that it cost these men parts of their soul when they were viewed as nothing more than pieces of meat.
Everybody was objectified on "Spartacus," and the show sustained an impressive balancing act: It both gloried in the physical specimens on display (every viewer, whatever their sexuality, got an eyeful), and it also showed how thoughtless and cruel objectification can be, in the wrong hands.
It's also worth noting that DeKnight put gay characters at the center of the overall narrative and made sure their adventures were just as important as anyone else's. Sex between men and sex between women was shown regularly. As DeKnight told me in one interview, in the early seasons, he was "inundated with mostly guys saying, 'I love the show, but can you cut it out with the gay shit?'" DeKnight said. "And my reply was always 'No. If you don't like it, stop watching the show.'"
That's the thing about "Spartacus": It always had an agenda, one that prized human dignity, egalitarian ideals and bravery. It did its own thing, and it didn't necessarily care whether it was everyone's cup of tea. It was bonkers at times, but it owned that bonkers-ness and had fun with it. And as wild as things got, the show could also be restrained and heartbreaking when necessary. Five years after it debuted, I wish I had the time for another binge. Soon.
As you embark on your "Spartacus" journey, here are a series of reviews and interviews to read:
- My non-spoilery review of the first four episodes of Season 1.
- My assessment of the first 12 episodes of the first season.
- My take on the eventful Season 1 finale.
- An interview with Season 1 star Andy Whitfield about his work on the show and his illness (which, at the time of filming, was in remission). RIP Andy.
- An interview with Lawless before the premiere of "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena."
- DeKnight talks about the prequel season "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena."
- An interview with John Hannah before the premiere of "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena."
- An interview with Peter Mensah (Doctore), which ran mid-way through the run of "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena."
- My reviews of the six episodes of "Gods of the Arena": Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4, Episode 5 and Episode 6.
- A short interview with DeKnight before the premiere of "Spartacus: Vengeance."
- A longer interview with DeKnight about "Vengeance" and about recasting the show's lead role.
- From January 2012: Are "Downton Abbey" and "Spartacus" the same show?
- DeKnight and Lawless discuss the finale of "Spartacus: Vengeance."
- The cast and DeKnight talk about the final season of "Spartacus" after the first three episodes of "War of the Damned" had aired.
- Before the final season began, DeKnight discussed why it was time to end the show.
- DeKnight talks about the series finale and more.
- A podcast version of the series finale interview with DeKnight; that podcast also contains thoughts from my podcast partner Ryan McGee and myself about the show and how it ended. Other "Spartacus" Talking TV podcasts are here.