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Television Review

‘Spartacus’ offers swords, sandals, sex, and silliness

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / January 22, 2010

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Starz’s new series “Spartacus: Blood and Sand’’ is either a brilliant sendup of gladiator movies or one of the cheesiest TV dramas ever made.

The show, which premieres tonight at 10, is either a fabulous spoof whose expert actors have perfected the art of amateur line delivery or employment for an epic cast of shockingly wooden thespians. It was written either by master satirists hoping to inspire viewer drinking games each time blood drops sail in slo-mo or by teen boys.

My vote is for the latter in each case, especially the one where the writers are teen boys. This attempt to milk the success of the 2008 movie “300’’ is a major dud, from the C-level production values and shoddy green-screen technology to the horrible makeup that turns star Lucy Lawless into a Raggedy Ann doll. You can laugh at “Spartacus’’ for a few minutes; it is so bad, it’s good. But eventually tedium settles in, as all the indistinct men with pumped-up bodies and wrestlers’ hair grunt their stupid lines and the swords swish endlessly as they lop off limbs. It all blurs into a dull steroid rush.

The story has no layers, the dialogue has no subtext. The scenes are like panels in the worst of graphic novels. Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) goes up against the Romans and finds himself thrown into the gladiatorial stadium. His only reason to live is to be reunited with his wife, Sura (Erin Cummings). Ultimately, he is purchased by the ruthless Batiatus (John Hannah) and his wife, Lucretia (Lawless), a cunning spouse who also happens to be sexually voracious.

Oh right, the sex. “Spartacus’’ is filled with somewhat explicit sex scenes that want to evoke the glamorous, provocative swagger of HBO’s “Rome’’ but ultimately feel more like bad soft porn. There is swooning involved.

But the violence, not the sex or the story, is the biggest gimmick in “Spartacus.’’ Every few minutes, it seems, muscular flesh is ripped, blood spews, and the camera freezes the flow, like a bottle of splattered ketchup in midair. During one gladiatorial scene, Spartacus cuts off a foe’s legs and we see the poor legless guy dragging himself desperately through the sand to get away - but he’s not so lucky. Spartacus digs a four-pronged weapon into the guy’s behind, and a splash of red rises up behind him like a tidal wave of blood.

The scene is so profoundly fake, it has no gag factor, no awe to it. It’s as emotionally inert as a video game, and far less engaging.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

SPARTACUS: Blood and Sand Starring: Andy Whitfield, John Hannah, Lucy Lawless, Peter Mensah, Manu Bennett

On: Starz

Time: Tonight, 10-11