The odds weren’t favourable when the New Zealand-produced Spartacus first swaggered into the cut-throat arena of primetime drama a couple of years back. In fact, this televisual take on Gladiator’s world of blood, guts, swords and sandals looked destined for a painful and ignominious smackdown, or at the very least an early Roman bath. The first episode was dreadful, all cod-historical gibberish delivered by oiled beefcakes preening against unconvincing green-screen scenery. As the season progressed, though, the underdog somehow picked itself up off the sand, launched back into the fight, and went on to become one of the most irresistible guilty pleasures ever to splat across the small screen.
Much of its popularity has clearly been to do with those ultra-extreme gladiatorial fights, so rip-roaringly insane they could have even the most pacific viewer punching the air before remembering how reprehensible it all is. Indeed, the series indulges itself in this having-your-cake-and-eating-it, revelling in the bloody mayhem while coming over all shocked – shocked – at the wickedness of an Empire that could enslave men to do such horrid things to one another. And, by Jupiter, is it ever horrid, what with eviscerations, face-slicings, skull-pulpings and the like, all lovingly filmed in state-of-the-art slo-mo. And yet there’s something so cartoonish and absurd about the whole thing – one of its producers is Sam (Evil Dead) Raimi – it somehow feels like mischievous but basically harmless fun.
In this third season, the action has moved out of the arena and into the countryside as Spartacus and his fellow multicultural renegades make life inconvenient for the hated Romans, chiefly cold-eyed military commander Glaber. The slaves’ uprising is, of course, the pre-eminient part of the Spartacus legend, and there’s many a spectacular set-piece as they unleash hell and the Romans respond with a ruthless War on Terror.
But something has been lost in the transition to this part of the story. Gone is John Hannah’s Batiatus, the deliciously cynical CEO of Capua’s best gladiatorial stable. Hannah provided most of the humour and easily the best delivered of the show’s many profanities, and his absence is keenly felt in this rather sententious season. Also sorely missed is the late Andy Whitfield, the Welsh-born actor who really grew into an iconic and humane lead before his shockingly early death forced the production team to mark time with a prequel until they found a replacement in Liam McIntyre.
Given these losses, which might have mortally nobbled a less energetically going concern, it’s pleasing to note that Season Three eventually gets into its stride as the villains of the piece begin to show their fangs, particularly the Michael Corleone-ish Glaber (Craig Parker) and his unspeakable wife Illythia (Viva Bianca), whose newly found maternal instincts don’t prevent her from gleefully carving up a captured slave for the entertainment of her fellow party-goers. And it’s so good to see Lucy Lawless back as the compulsively scheming Lucretia that you can almost forgive the scriptwriters for her Bobby-Ewing-style return from the dead.
As for Spartacus himself, McIntyre has so far been solid and likeable rather than dynamic and inspiring, though he hasn’t been helped by a script that gives him repetitive pep talks rather than character development. Hopefully, he’ll come into his own in the final season when the Empire really strikes back and his character finds himself with more than squabbling Gauls and Goths to worry about.
Spartacus: Vengeance is out now in DVD