Covering television on a deadline sometimes leads to pain, suffering and emotional distress. Case in point: Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
The sword and sandal epic just premiered and airs Monday at 9 on The Movie Channel/Movie Central in Canada. It originates Fridays at 10 p.m. on the cable channel Starz in the U.S.
I had to file a Starweek cover story on Spartacus before I headed down to Pasadena for the press tour earlier this month and went back to the Starz press tour session last July/August for quotes from the cast and producers. Andy Whitfield (above), who plays Spartacus, wasn't at that session (the series had already begun filming in New Zealand) but co-stars Lucy Lawless and John Hannah, along with executive producer Bob Tapert (Lawless' real life husband dating back to their Xena days) and Sam Raimi were all on the panel.
Clips were shown and the session was fun and lively with plenty of talk about the steamy, boundary-pushing content. The fact that the cast called the jock strap the male actors wore in the sex scenes to hide their junk the "Kirk Douglas" made it into my Starweek piece. The knickers nickname was a cheeky tribute to Douglas, who played Spartacus in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 feature about the Roman slave-turned-rebellious hero.
The point was made that this series was much more serious, less cartoon-y than Xena. Comparisons to The Sopranos were made.
Last week, I filed another Spartacus story for The Canadian Press, this one fresh from the January press tour. That's where the cast (this time including Whitfield), gathered once again before critics to promote the series. There was much talk there about the green screen process used to create the Roman Empire-era backgrounds, and there was more promotional titillation about the sex scenes.
At this point, I had seen snippets of the show but, honestly, was really filing blind. Sometimes on a deadline you go with a great interview and a clip and move on to the next assignment. After all the sex talk, however, I thought I better see for myself what all the fuss was about and finally popped in a screener over the weekend.
I could not believe what I saw. The series is over-the-top violent, makes a Junior hockey game look like a tea party. Blades and lances slice and pierce and blood jets in slow motion all over the screen. When some dude gets cut in the arena, its like 15 people are standing behind him with full pails of blood, just waiting to heave them skyward. No human body contains that much red fluid. The producers slow it all down, so that every red splatter dances in the air. What is really shocking and disturbing is not so much the violence in of itself but that the new technology has been used to render it beyond gratuitous.
So I apologise to each and every reader who may have been swayed by anything I wrote about this show to the point that they decided to check it out for themselves. What Hannah and Lawless are doing in this deal is beyond me. It is violence porn, plain and simple.
Having said that, clearly there is an appetite for this brand of programming. Spartacus: Blood and Bloodier drew an overnight, estimated 3.3 million viewers in its Starz debut, earning the No. 1 spot in all of cable among males 18-49. I have no idea how many people checked it out on TMN/MC in Canada.
Starz did spin the numbers to their advantage. That 3.3 million comes after you add the Friday debut hour with a second screening at 11 p.m., plus the DVR same day numbers, plus an encore on their sister station Encore, plus three additional weekend airings. So six Starz/Encore airings plus DVR numbers. It all adds up to a record debut for the premium pay channel.
That would seem to indicate that the video game generation is pre-programmed into this slice and dice Spartacus. With its virtual backgrounds and heightened imagery, it pretty much plays like an "M" for mature video game. Starz has already renewed the series for a second bloody season.
To me it is all an exercise in desensitization. Won't viewers just go through the five stages of rejection--initial shock, numbness, derisive laughter, restlessness, boredom? Let me just stand now and say I am not Spartacus. You comments are welcome.