One of my favourite television dramas of recent years was Rome, the brainchild of Bruno Heller, the talented writer who went on to create The Mentalist. Heller had to go on to create the Mentalist because, sadly, Rome only lasted two series. This was due to shortsighted executives at the BBC who cancelled it when their bean-counters calculated that the show wasn't successful enough to justify its budget.
So they axed Rome, just as DVD sales were going through the roof. And they discovered, to their horror, that they'd killed off a hit show. (In an interview Charles Dance — star of both Rome and Game of Thrones — was asked if the BBC could have produced Game of Thrones. "They would have cancelled it after two series," he said.)
But the spirit of Rome lives on, most unexpectedly, in Spartacus: Blood and Sand. This American/Antipodean co-production comes on like a Mickey Spillane rewrite of Rome. It's pulp fiction — crude, energetic, lurid and wonderfully prurient. Full of sex, nudity and bone-crunching, blood-spattering violence, subtle it ain't.
Originally I started watching it as a guilty pleasure, not taking it very seriously. But as I worked my way through the first series I was startled to discover that it is a superbly constructed, beautifully written show. Vivid characterisation and deft manipulation of simple, powerful situations make for entirely gripping and addictive viewing.
And although it's a low-brow, exploitation drama compared to Rome, it is also in some ways more profound and serious. Spartacus is a story inherently slanted from the slaves' point of view and, as such, it manages to powerfully convey the evil of Roman society and institutions in a way its more sophisticated predecessor never achieved. As an indictment of the institution of slavery, it easily eclipses 12 Years a Slave.
The (tragically) late Andy Whitfield plays Spartacus, leading a strong cast which includes John Hannah and Lucy Lawless as the lascivious, conniving and lavishly immoral couple who run the gladiator academy where our hero is imprisoned. Lawless is a revelation — uninhibited and often terrifying in an all-stops-out performance. It's hard to believe she was once that nice Xena the Warrior Princess girl.
Spartacus is, in many ways, the spawn of Xena — starring Lawless, produced by Sam Raimi and featuring music by Joseph LoDuca, all from that series. But really Spartacus is the spawn of Steven DeKnight, the American writer and veteran of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Smallville, who created this terrific series. And we should also take note of Daniel Knauf, who created the intriguing series Carnivàle, and wrote some outstanding episodes of Spartacus.
I need to leaven my praise just a little, though. If Spartacus has an Achilles heel (excuse me mixing Roman and Greek mythology), it's the dialogue. In their attempts to invent stuff that sounds suitably ancient, the writers occasionally come up with gibberish.
Their verbal contortions turn nonsensical, and sometimes end up reversing the very meaning of a sentence — "He never ceases to tire of the games" is my current favourite. This sort of tosh would never have been permitted in Bruno Heller's Rome.
But that's a small point. Here's the big picture... Spartacus is a heady mix. Stunning, transgressive and beautifully done. It's magnificently constructed, a model of television screenwriting. Minimal, powerful, extremely dramatic and a masterpiece of clarity — all the characters' motivations are strong and clear, and everything makes sense. It shows what a great chef (Steven DeKnight — and his writing team) can do with simple ingredients. It's a classic.
(Image credits: All the posters are from Movie Poster DB.)