John Hannah, left, and Dustin Clare in “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena,” starting Friday on Starz.
Like AMC’s “Mad Men” the latest series on Starz is a period drama in which the patriarchy dominates, the class system is rigidly delineated, and the cultural attitude toward drinking has yet
to fall under the punishing heels of recovery and restraint. As its name suggests, “Spartacus: Gods of the
Arena” (beginning on Friday) is set well before the advent of Alcoholics Anonymous but right during the high moment of extreme sports. Specifically we are in the late 70s B.C. in the
ancient city of Capua at a Roman gladiatorial campus where dorm life leaves the shenanigans at the Big Ten looking fairly pathetic.
“Spartacus” belongs distinctly to the swords-and-sandals school, one turning into a specialty for Starz, the premium-cable channel striving for the status of HBO and Showtime. “Gods of the
Arena” spins a six-episode back story from last year’s initial installment, “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” which charted the rise of the Thracian gladiator who led a slave rebellion against the
Roman ruling class from 73 to 71 B.C.
The plan originally had been to film a sequel, but when the actor portraying Spartacus, Andy Whitfield, learned he had a recurrence of cancer and became unable to work, the network decided to
look for a related narrative not dependent on his character.
The result is a production even more fantastically soapy than the first, visually elevated by an apocalyptic video-game look in which the orgiastic sex and violence are presented with a
studied, syncopated choreography. Technologically we’ve come a long way from Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” in 1960 and the 1976 BBC series “I, Claudius,” so that something even as
fundamentally absurd as “Gods of the Arena” can be said to bear the sophistication it does not necessarily possess.
The current series revolves around the historical figure Batiatus, owner of the Capua slave-gladiators, and Gannicus, in particular, played by Dustin Clare, who appears as a kind of
vainglorious hybrid of Colin Farrell and Fabio. A champion in the field, Gannicus is poised to bring his owner greater and greater glory. As the proprietor of a sports franchise who has also
fallen under the shadow of his politically dominant father, Batiatus reminds one of George W. Bush during his Texas Rangers phase.
Batiatus is portrayed exuberantly by John Hannah, the Scottish actor emblazoned in our minds as the mourner who recites Auden’s “Funeral Blues” at his lover’s memorial service in “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Accustomed to playing softies, he seems
thrilled at the chance to swagger and do gutter talk.
There is plenty of it in the series, as well as group sex, gay sex and opium-induced hallucinations. Starz is currently run by Chris Albrecht, who guided HBO when it created much of its
finest programming, so comparisons with “Rome” are doubly inevitable. The two ventures are alike in togas only, with “Rome” offering a greater depth of historical curiosity.
“Gods” signals its campiness fairly emphatically with the appearance of Lucy Lawless from “Xena: Warrior Princess” as Batiatus’s driven and calculating wife, Lucretia, a woman with an
out-of-town bisexual best friend (Jaime Murray) who arrives in Capua as the ancient world’s gossip girl in chief. At first glance we suspect that she has packed trouble in her luggage, and
that her hostess gift is not a scented candle.
The arrival of the “Spartacus” series while Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” trilogy has been dominating best-seller lists with its futuristic gladiator theme suggests there is an appetite
for stories of class warfare in the bloody, fatalistic extreme. (In the books the oppressed are pitted against one another in live death matches streamed on television.)
In another time it was gratifying enough to witness the inanities of the very wealthy on “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” but now perhaps we want to know that a more egregious fall is destined. Swords
and sandals offer the hope and the promise.
Gods of the Arena
Starz, Friday nights at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9 Central time.
Created and written by Steven S. DeKnight; Rob Tapert, Joshua Donen, Mr. DeKnight and Sam Raimi, executive producers. Produced by Starz Entertainment.
WITH: John Hannah (Batiatus), Lucy Lawless (Lucretia), Dustin Clare (Gannicus),Peter Mensah (Oenomaus), Jaime Murray (Gaia), Manu Bennett (Crixus), Marisa Ramirez (Melitta) and Jeffrey Thomas