Image Credit: Matt Klitscher/StarzSpartacus: Gods of the Arena shouldn’t work. The six-episode miniseries was designed as a stopgap solution when Spartacus star Andy Whitfield had to bow out of filming a second season to receive cancer treatment. (Unfortunately, Whitfield ultimately had to resign from the series, and the lead role has since been recast.) Making a Spartacus series that doesn’t actually feature Spartacus sounds like an exercise in futility, like writing a Hardy Boys mystery about the Hardys’ best buddy Chet, or making a Jason Bourne movie without Jason Bourne. To make things worse, the miniseries is a prequel, a narrative format that mainly lends itself to relentless wheel-spinning. So it was a pleasure to find out that the Gods of the Arena premiere was such a surprisingly enjoyable hour of television.
Whitfield is sorely missed, and without him at the center, I’m not sure this miniseries can ever really be more than a well-produced mess. But it’s a gorgeous mess. Without the gravitas of Spartacus’ slave-revolt storyline, the makers of Spartacus seem willing to indulge their basest B-movie instincts. So the first hour was wall-to-wall with cartoonishly over-the-top fight sequences, jauntily unrestrained nudity from both sexes, and enough comically elaborate swearing to fill a fifth-grade playground. The plot follows a much younger Batiatus (John Hannah) and Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) as they try to take their stable of gladiators into the highest ranks. The simultaneous focus on the gladiators’ physical exertions and Batiatus’ back-room dealmaking make Spartacus feel more than ever like the bloodiest sports TV show ever. (It’s basically Any Given Sunday, except more realistic.)
Along with returning Spartacus stars Peter Mensah and Manu Bennett, Gods of the Arena features some delicious new characters. I’m not sure who I like more: Dustin Clare’s Gannicus, a gladiator champion with excessive tastes (threesome alert!) who narrowly survived a blindfolded street brawl; or Jaime Murray’s Gaia, a social climber who spent the first hour seducing Lucretia (lesbian sex alert!) and teaching her all about the joys of opium. I’m also intrigued to see more of Marisa Ramirez’ Melitta, who plays Oenomaus’ heretofore-unseen wife. (Presumably, something terrible will happen to her.)
Since Gods of the Arena is only going to last for six hours, and since we already know a few of the characters won’t make it out alive, this could make for fast-paced entertainment. Spartacus fans, did you enjoy Gods of the Arena? Did you like the new characters? Or is this miniseries just a distraction until the story really continues in season 2?
Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich