Some time ago, I was talking with Andrew (as we do) and I happened to mention to him that if ever a Complete Series collection of the Starz network’s Spartacus crossed his path that I’d be more than happy to review it. I saw it as a welcome opportunity to revisit a series that I grew to love a great deal over the course of its original run. And as the Fates would have it, that seed planted months ago has finally bore fruit. Yes, just such an object came into the Geek Hard offices this past week, Anchor Bay having at last deemed the world worthy of a condensed dose of awesomeness with their official release of SPARTACUS: THE COMPLETE SERIES Blu-Ray on September 16th.
This is an absolutely beautiful, massive set with a ton of special features. So in the interest of doing the product justice and preserving my sanity, I’ll be reviewing the collection in four parts, conveniently broken down by season.
Capua, shall I begin?!
SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND
When Spartacus: Blood and Sand launched in 2010, the posters and promos that assaulted us from all sides in advance of the series premiere made the whole production look like a cheesy diversion on a channel no one had ever really heard of. Another heaping pile of action-adventure goofiness from the Xena/Hercules production team of Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi with the added wrinkle of carrying the hardest TV-MA rating the world has ever seen. A lightweight bit of fluff filled with more tits, ass, and blood than even the most ardent supporter of exploitation cinema could handle. A potential guilty pleasure if ever there was one.
That perception was both a blessing and a curse for Spartacus. If you were one of those who immediately tuned in for the promise of beyond cinematic levels of explicit and gratuitous gore and nudity all to be enjoyed from the comfort of your own tv screen, you were given just that. But after one or two episodes you began to discover something else. Something that was there from the beginning but was perhaps overlooked in favour of satisfying more base interests: This show was well written. This show was well acted. This show was forming a complex narrative filled with three dimensional characters. This show was worth your time… and the time of your friends and family… and the time of anyone else you could possibly think of that might even be a little bit interested in this sort of glorious marriage of ultraviolence and well-constructed, intelligent drama.
But there were many who were immediately turned off by those more exploitative trappings as well. Many who may have appreciated the depth of story and character, but dismissed the series too quickly to experience the less overt positive qualities it had to offer. I freely admit I was one of those people. I had watched the first couple of episodes shortly after they aired and while I thought it looked interesting and unlike anything else on TV, I was turned off by what I perceived as an overt attempt to look like Zack Snyder’s 300 and the resultant, oftentimes cheesy CGI that overwhelmed many of the scenes. I enjoyed the work done by John Hannah, Lucy Lawless, Manu Bennet, Peter Mensah, Jai Courtney, and especially Andy Whitfield, but was frustrated by the poor performances supplied by many of the supporting players. I decided one episode was enough and closed the book on Spartacus. Or at least I thought I had.
A month or so after the show began, upon repeated urging from my brother, I gave Spartacus another shot. I’m glad I did and have never looked back. While the show still carried the slo-mo/fast-mo and “graphic novel” visuals found in 300, Spartacus seemed to have found it’s own unique way of executing these moments that made it feel less like a knock-off and more of a singular work applying a unique twist on a familiar aesthetic. The performances and characters were given more of the spotlight. The production appeared to be relying less on the violence as a crutch to keep the audience’s attention and used it more effectively as a tool to punctuate the storylines and arcs established in the quieter, less action driven moments of drama. “Guilty” could officially be taken out of the pleasure equation. By Jupiter’s cock, this was simply a Great. Fucking. Show.
Buoyed by a phenomenal, star-making central performance from Andy Whitfield as Spartacus, Blood and Sand begins with Roman Legatus Gaius Claudius Glaber winning the allegiance of the Thracian and his warrior comrades in a looming conflict against barbarian hordes encroaching on Thrace. When the Romans don’t hold up their end of the bargain and the Thracians desert to defend their villages from the enemy, the man who would become Spartacus is captured and enslaved for his “crimes”. Following his journey from convict marked for death, to slave, to gladiator and beyond, Blood and Sand provides us with not only a nuanced portrait of Spartacus himself, but also of his masters, gladiatorial rivals, teachers, and friends (few as they may be).
The tragedy of this season, of course, is the loss of Andy Whitfield after his long struggle with cancer. It’s difficult to watch the series now, marvelling at the tremendously powerful work being done by a relatively unseasoned actor knowing the career and life he would have had ahead of him had his thread not been cut horrifically short. While his scenes in the arena are wonderful, it’s in the more sober, quiet, and thoughtful moments that Whitfield truly shines. His strength in subtlety is truly something to behold and hopefully this set will allow many more people a chance to enjoy a phenomenal talent and human being we lost far too soon.
On a lighter note, a bit of a surprising positive the show can boast of is just how progressive it is. The main female characters have agency, the gay characters are treated with respect and as equals, the cast is pretty damn ethnically diverse, and for every shot of the nude female form you’re just as likely to see a half naked, super-ripped and oiled dude with a free-range wanger. Not bad for a show known for the great gouts of blood and copious dismemberments, right?
The special features for this season are pretty substantial and a lot of fun. A number of quality commentaries and behind the scenes mini-docs pepper the set, giving you a unique insight into what was by all accounts a very goofy and familial collection of cast and crew. Andy Whitfield’s positivity and the strength of the bonds he formed with everyone on set really shine through nearly every time he’s mentioned or is on screen. For his fans, this collection should truly be something special.
The Blu-Ray exclusive Movie IQ and Pop-Up History features are truly the star of the show here, though. The Spartacus Historicus pop-ups are so extensive and well done I imagine any and all questions you may have had regarding Roman history during the period in which the show takes place as well as the true story of Spartacus would be answered in entertaining fashion.
Anchor Bay has done a wonderful job with the technical side of this release as well. Upon it’s initial airing I watched it live on a 1080p HD television and the transfer that you get on this Blu Ray looks to somehow achieve a step up from even that. The images are sharper, the colours pop more, and even the blacks seem deeper and inkier than I recall them being on my digital HD television feed. When it comes to sound, the set features an excellent mix that works equally well whether you’re listening on a full surround system or simply using the crappy stereo speakers built into your television.
That does it for BLOOD AND SAND but come back next week when I’ll be deep diving into the Gannicus-starring prequel season GODS OF THE ARENA!
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!