You just can't keep a good dominus down. Batiatus and his stable of gladiators are back for more blood in “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” (Starz, Fridays, 10 p.m.). The series, a prequel to last season's “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” tells the back story of the House of Batiatus before Spartacus appears to lead his devastating revolt. In the tradition of its predecessor, the show is all about blood, violence and sex.
You just can't keep a good dominus down. Batiatus and his stable of gladiators are back for more blood in “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” (Starz, Fridays, 10 p.m.). The series, a prequel to last season's “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” tells the back story of the House of Batiatus before Spartacus appears to lead his devastating revolt. In the tradition of its predecessor, the show is all about blood, violence and sex. Throats are cut, torsos are sliced in half, faces are smashed, sex is dinner party entertainment—and that's all in the first two episodes.
The violent imagery on “Gods of the Arena” is the result of CGI special effects. It's like watching a video game, but less Wii and more “Mortal Kombat.” The scenes are highly stylized, so they are never in any danger of being perceived as real. Their impact then, is a surprising, thrilling assault to the senses. You might find yourself thinking: “Did his head just fly off his body?!” more than once an episode, but you're not going to confuse a scene in “Spartacus” with one from an extreme medical program.
What makes “Gods of the Arena” interesting is that the delirious return of blood is framed by the prequel storytelling device. This back-story structure works like insider information, giving viewers familiar with the previous series a more complex picture. While past audiences will find this “before they were stars” conceit clever, it isn't necessary to have screened “Blood and Sand” to enjoy “Gods of the Arena.” The characters, whether you feel like you know them already or not, are compelling to watch, particularly Batiatus, the dominus (“master”) of the training center that Spartacus will eventually call home. Batiatus is ruthlessly ambitious, morally bankrupt and one of the best villains in series television. I'm not sure what inspires more “oh no he didn't!” moments: the stylized blood battles that cause heads to literally roll or Batiatus' schemes and betrayals. Played by British actor John Hannah, Batiatus practically spits venom with every line of dialogue. Add Batiatus' wife, Lucretia (Lucy Lawless), with her mix of spousal devotion and dark temptations, and you have a Roman version of Bonnie and Clyde — just with more blood and orgies.
The focus of the latest “Spartacus” installment may be on its depiction of cartoon-like violence, but this is part of the franchise's success. By offering a much-needed creative alternative to traditional network programming, the bloody imagery challenges audiences to reconsider the boundaries of “acceptable” viewing. Starz's version of “Spartacus” tells a classic story of good versus evil, but with provocation and edge. Whether you tune into “Gods of the Arena” as a fan or a first-timer, it's worth watching. What other show offers a thrill ride approach to violence combined with a case study of blind ambition? OK, maybe “Wipe Out” but aren't gladiators more fun?
Melissa Crawley credits her love of all things small screen to her parents, who never used the line, "Or no TV!" as a punishment. Her book, “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing,’” was published in 2006. She has a PhD in media studies. To comment on Stay Tuned, e-mail her at email@example.com.