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Ancient Rome Gets Hot and Bothered, Again

Pay cable channel Starz trots out a prequel to last year's hit, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand." "Gods of the Arena" promises a lot of flesh and dubious Roman history all in the name of big event drama.

The premium cable channel Starz did something last year I didn't know was possible. That is to say, it shocked me with Spartacus: Blood and Sand, a period drama so back stabbing, gore drenched and butt naked that my jaw literally dropped at least once during every episode.

I loved it instantly.

Some critics had dismissed the swords-and-sandals show as a soft-core porn, 300-meets-Fight Club ripoff, Caligula wannabe, to which I say: Yeah? So? Are you really looking for credible Roman history on a Friday night on pay cable? Masterpiece Theater, it ain't.

Does that mean, then, that Spartacus qualifies as a pure guilty pleasure, easily jabbed as lightweight, inconsequential and hollow? That's the debate I had recently at the semi-annual Television Critics Association conference with a fellow entertainment reporter who guessed that I just liked it for the copious amounts of barely-clad beefcake.

Busted!

But it's more than that, folks. There's a fast-moving and addictive story, issues of class warfare and freedom vs. subjugation and some genuine acting. John Hannah kills it as the power hungry, greedy, duplicitous Quintus Batiatus. And Lucy Lawless as Lucretia, his lusty and scheming wife, proves that she's not just a fanboy icon but a shrewd talent.

And, hey, there's a little something for the ladies too, in the form of rippling eight packs as far as the eye can see. What's not to love?

So it's no wonder that I'll be glued to the set this Friday night as the prequel, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, launches its six-episode run. Its producers, who include fantasy/action genre masters Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, have promised to up the ante on violence, though I'm not sure how anything could beat that first-season underworld scene where a monstrous brawler actually carved off a guy's face and made it into a mask. (Important viewing tip: do not watch during dinner).

Since the first season of Spartacus blazed a trail—it broke ratings records for the Burbank-based Starz—there's been high demand and much anticipation for season two. The show established an original programming beachhead for the channel and caused some TV watchers to look at Starz for the first time as something other than a movie destination.

Unfortunately, there was also bad news connected to the series. Its star, Aussie actor Andy Whitfield, was diagnosed with non-hodgkin's lymphoma and had to drop out of the production before filming could begin for the second season. Starz executives, faced with a big decision, moved ahead with a plan for a short prequel, Gods of the Arena, where the Thracian gladiator who becomes known as Spartacus hasn't yet arrived on the scene. (It's set five years prior to Blood and Sand and stars many of the season one cast members, along with newcomer Dustin Clare as a self-destructive, living-on-the-edge gladiator). They waited, meanwhile, to see if Whitfield could rejoin the show.

After a few health setbacks, Whitfield had to take himself out of contention for the role. Starz executives said at the recent TCA gathering that, with Whitfield's blessing, they starting looking for a permanent replacement for the lead character for season two. This week, they named fellow Australian Liam McIntyre as the new Spartacus.

There's no air date yet for the second season, but it'll likely pop up later this year. It will pick up where season one left off—a scene of revolt and carnage where the slaves had overtaken the masters. (The episode title, "Kill Them All," gives you some indication of what happened.) It looked like the "royals" from the House of Batiatus had been murdered en masse, but producers and Lawless teased that her character somehow made it through the uprising. (Hannah's conniving Batiatus—whose throat was slit—not so much).

It'll be a more expansive show, the producers promised, with stepped up visual effects. For instance, gladiators don't really fly through the air in slow motion—we can assume there's some kind of app for that. As for the controversial full frontal nudity in the series, there's been no talk whatsoever of digital trickery. Some things are just sacred!

Executive producer Steven DeKnight said there will be no attempt to "water down" the show or "pander to the mass market." In other words, don't expect Spartacus to stop pushing the envelope. Quite the contrary.

I can hardly wait. Trash TV or not, I'm so in.

On a related note, you can be in, too, really in, via a themed promotion that makes sense thematically, yet still makes me giggle, between the series and MET-Rx dubbed, "Show us your MET-Rx warrior workout video." 

Create a video that displays your "inner warrior" and you might end up with a walk-on role on the show. I'll just go ahead and volunteer right now to be a judge.

Starz honcho Chris Albrecht said during the TCA gathering that the network hasn't specially searched for period dramas—the network hasn't had much luck with its half-hour original comedies like the suicide-themed Gravity—but has found a groove with big, splashy event productions.

"We'll leave the quiet dramas to other people," he said. And Starz might not delve too deeply into comedy. "We're not a very funny group," he said, only sort of kidding.

And on that note, the channel plans its version of the oft-told Arthurian legend, Camelot, in April (with a Feb. 25 sneak preview). The romantic adventure stars Joseph Fiennes as Merlin, who said he'd enjoyed his time as the star of ABC's now-canned Flash Forward but he's glad to be back in a classic period piece.

"I loved wearing the Kevlar vest and the gun on my hip," Fiennes said at the TCA conference. "But I love this very modern narrative. There are so many sides to it—patricide, fratricide, infanticide..."

Wow, that's a lot of killing.

Early clips make the series look racy and sexy and gritty, which is fast becoming Starz' calling card. It will have to contend with some HBO competition in the genre: the much buzzed about Game of Thrones based on George R.R. Martin's bestselling novels also launches this spring. More later on that series, which has been described as The Sopranos in Middle Earth. For now, I'm looking at a lot of quality mystical, magical, armor- and shield-filled programming on the horizon.

Just how much room is there for the Dark Ages on TV? Since I'm a sucker for a rich looking, hot-under-the-collar costume drama, I'm already invested in both these shows. Readers? Will you find a place on your DVR for them?

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