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TV Preview: Starz's 'Spartacus' offers up a bloody, good time on Friday night TV

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010; C03

I am Spartacus's trainer: We worked his core group for three hours a day, then did lower body strengthening for another two hours, then an hour of cardio, and then a Pontius Pilates cool-down. Every day. He ate nothing but egg whites and grilled chicken breasts. And now, just look at him.

I am Spartacus's stylist: In the first episode of "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" (Friday night on Starz), he's still a Thracian villager joining the Romans in war, and he's a bit Visigothy, so we went with a wig of shoulder-length tresses with only the softest bit of curl. At first it was too "Spinal Tap," and then it just came to me: Viggo in "Lord of the Rings"! Right? Later, in the second episode, thank God the story picks up the pace and Spartacus is captured and sent to that gladiator camp. Because then we come to that scene where they whack his hair off. But, hello? With a knife? Honey, we labored on that haircut. I didn't want it to look too-too Caesar.

I am Spartacus's swordfight choreographer: I wish I could say that they all came to the show ready to do battle, because so many of them had worked on "300" and stuff like that, but we went over it and over it, especially our slo-mo arcs. I will say, it's a good thing that a lot of them have done music videos, cabarets, cruise ships. You need some dance fundamentals.

I am Spartacus's CGI dude: Well, one of them. I basically do the blood. My nickname around here is Buckets. Another guy does the sky, and that guy over in that cubicle does immolations, beheadings, amputations. But I do the blood. If it looks like cherry soda to you, with all those pinkish, slo-mo droplets hanging in the air for two seconds -- well, it is! We'd go out to the parking lot and throw cherry soda syrup in the air and take pictures with our iPhones and then work it from there. Everyone kept saying make it redder.

And, finally, I am Spartacus's television critic: I girded myself to do battle with the first four episodes of "Spartacus: Blood and Sand," and I expected cheap effects and corny dialogue delivered with supercilious Shakespearean pomp by Australians I'd never heard of. I accepted my fate and prepared to die of boredom -- even though I knew Lucy Lawless is in it (Xena!) as conniving Lucretia, wife of gladiator team owner Batiatus, played by John Hannah ("The Mummy"; "Four Weddings and a Funeral").

But, oh, this Spartacus. It's deliciously, marvelously bad, and I was helpless in its grip. It's a long way from Kubrick, but what isn't?

Produced by the likes of "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi and spun around by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" writer Steven S. DeKnight, this re-imagining of the legendary slave-turned-gladiator's epic tale has a sleazy charm that gets better with each episode.

Though it made me miss HBO's sadly short-lived "Rome" a whole lot (all those U.K. and Kiwi and Aussie accents; all those drapey gowns and leather sandals), "Spartacus" retains a strong sense of valor and suffering for a cause -- thanks mainly to Andy Whitfield's sturdy, steely performance in the title role.

It's also just about the grimiest, nastiest, bloodiest thing you could hope to find on TV on a Friday night. Limbs fly. Blood splatters everywhere. One warrior rips off the face of another and wears it as a mask to his next fight. There's lots of soft-core love scenes: Spartacus and his bride frolic around like the original "Joy of Sex" cartoon drawings. Lucretia and Batiatus have their slaves serve as marital aides.

And you can't help but laugh at the dialogue. Of course, with all these sweaty gladiators in loincloths, the whole thing can be viewed through a homoerotic prism, and "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" works extra hard to deflect that -- too hard, judging from the fact that all the men in it derisively refer to one another in epithets for a certain female body part. We get it guys, we get it. You are men and you kill.

You slay me, Spartacus, that's for sure.

Spartacus: Blood and Sand

(one hour) premieres Friday at 10 p.m. on Starz.

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