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May 16, 2010

Jupiter's Nutsack Be Praised

Lesley-Ann Brandt, Viva Bianca, Erin Cummings
and Katrina Law of Spartacus: Blood and Sand

Spartacus: Blood and Sand (Starz) at long last answers the question “What would happen if a cable network tailored a whole series to the tastes of warped, infantile middle-aged men like me?”

I started watching this show about a month ago—around the same time that I began to wonder whether anyone out there has noted my previous nudity-centric forays into American television criticism?

Evidently, Sam Raimi has, and he, along with his very capable co-producers, have channeled some considerable creative energy into this finely crafted titfest just for me. And my ilk. Let us not forget the ilk.

I was going to hold off on this post until I had dutifully finished Season One. However, after avariciously enjoying Episode Ten last night I searched for online reviews of the series. What I discovered was a general trashing of the show’s alleged excesses, an orgy of tongue-clucking that I fear could ultimately lead to cancelation* if not offset by the sort of cooler, calmer appraisal that one such as I can supply.

The possessor of the cluckiest tongue surely belongs to someone called Robert Moore, writing for something called PopMatters, who titled his review “Is Spartacus: Blood and Sand a Joke?” Moore gave Spartacus one star on his ten-star scale and concluded that it may be “the worst big budget series ever made.” This verdict, by his own admission, was based on only the first two episodes.

Moore breaks down the series’ use of blood, slow motion, CGI, nudity, sex, and decadence, all of which he finds excessive and gratuitous. As for the blood and the stylistic items (slow motion and CGI), I think Moore needs to delve into the Sam Raimi oeuvre a little more deeply. Raimi is listed as exec producer on only two episodes, but his directorial style, as honed in his breakthrough Evil Dead movies, is stamped into Spartacus’s DNA. It was in that horror series that Raimi perfected the deliberately excessive use of gore to create something at once scary and ludicrous. (So, in answer to your question, Robert: Yes, Spartacus is, in part, an intentional joke that went right over your head.)

Personally, I don’t go for blood and violence all that much. I’m a lover (well, a masturbator at least), not a fighter. But Raimi-esque blood and violence—which is what we have here, for the most part—is deliberately cartoonish and therefore not unpalatable. Yes, the gladiators do spurt forth pints of blood when slashed up in the arena—and that’s just the ones who survive and recover (while the losers spurt gallons)—but it’s all in good fun.

Still, if Moore doesn’t have the stomach for Spartacus’s over-the-top blood-letting, well, that can’t be helped. Less excusable is his denunciation of the nudity, sex, and decadence. Here, Moore’s gripe seems to be that the sex and nudity don’t advance the plot, but are instead ends in themselves—in other words, the sort of pure and simple titillation that someone like me derives from typing the word titillation.

As a contrastive example of good and acceptable nudity, he offers the late Terminator series—specifically, the loss of clothes that ensues whenever any of the smokin’ hot characters travel through time. I think we need to remind Moore that people don’t really travel through time as far as we know, and that the whole disappearing-clothes phenomenon, therefore, has always been a deviceTerminator writers trot out for the sole purpose of providing, well, gratuitous titillation.

Moore writes: “At the end of the two episodes, which I watched back to back, I felt sullied and demeaned.” Aww, poor baby. Let’s all chip in and buy him a Rolling Fella Bomber. Cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck.

Yes, there is a lot of nudity in Spartacus—mostly consisting of topless females. Frankly, I don’t care if it’s gratuitous or not. I like it. It cheers me up. I suppose the producers, if pressed, would justify it on the grounds that it establishes the decadence and licentiousness that was Rome. Then again, the HBO series Rome accomplished the same thing by front-loading plenty of nudity into a handful of early episodes after which they grew ever more niggardly with nipples; whereas Spartacus, God bless its gnarly soul, gives us constant reinforcement.

There are mainly three kinds of female nudity in Spartacus:

1. Patrician nudity, as most notably practiced by Lucy Lawless as the social-climbing Lucretia and Viva Bianca as proto-sorority chick Ilithyia.

2. Slave nudity, as ably presented by Lesley-Ann Brandt and Katrina Law, among others.

3. Random arena nudity as practiced by darn near everybody.

All of the above are welcome, of course. If I had to pick a favorite, I suppose I’d go with the random arena nudity. I do not know how historically accurate this is, nor would I know where to begin to look it up, but when excited, the young female spectators at gladiator fights are apt to loosen their toga strings and shake free the contents. And in Spartacus, they are almost always excited. It turns out that behavior that we all assumed to have originated with Van Halen concert-goers of the Eighties actually has much older roots. Who knew?

I suppose I relish these slow panning shots of topless fans in part because they constitute the most obvious slap in the face to the joyless prudes of Moore’s stripe. “Look,” the producers seem to be saying, “we found so many hot women willing to appear topless for us that we can waste a few dozen on a crowd scene.”

But I digress. Sorry: It’s bound to happen when I get going on arena-tits. Before I go over my self-imposed word limit, I want to confirm my great satisfaction with Spartacus. Yes, the dialogue can be stilted. The writers have the gladiators saying things like “Gratitude for the lesson” when a simple “thanks” would suffice, and "Jupiter's cock!" of all things is a common oath. But the story-telling would be canny enough to carry the show even if it displayed a mere tenth of Season One’s boobage.

There is a character called Crixus, the Undefeated Gaul, for example. He started out as a pompous two-dimensional blowhard, surely destined to die in combat with Spartacus. But slowly, subtly, and with great care the writers have fitted him out with sympathetic traits so that I, for one, can no longer pretend to be able to predict his fate. Indeed, the whole story abounds in intrigues and unforeseeable twists.

And what a superb villainess the writers—and the actress Viva Bianca—have concocted in the ruthless Ilithyia! I can’t remember the last time I have so richly despised a female character, and yet at the same time yearned to see her naked. I suppose I would have to go all the way back to Margaret Hamilton.

In a nutshell, then: 10 stars out of 10 for Spartacus, a bloody wedgie to Robert Moore, and to the producers and writers of this fine series: Gratitude!

* Season Two already has a green light, but may be delayed because star Andy Whitfield has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Get well soon, Andy, for all our sakes.