It’s always been a mystery to me why, in an era of increasing shock value and excessive explicit material on television, the Starz series Spartacus was so overlooked by mainstream audiences. Sure, it never had the built-in audience of Game Of Thrones (which of course is based on a book series) or the easy accessibility of House Of Cards (a Netflix original), but Spartacus had many of the same attributes that have kept shows like these so popular for years now. There was reckless ambition, sudden death, sex appeal and nonstop political scheming. In many respects, it was the perfect show for today’s audience.
The show lasted only from 2010 to 2013, and barely left a wake in pop culture. Instead of talk of a continuation, reboot, sequel, or even film adaptation, as we often hear these days for popular shows going off the air, Spartacus merely fizzled out. There are a few games that invoke the same spirit as the show, but even these are only loosely related, with some not officially tied to the show at all.
Spartacus: Blood & Sand was the closest thing to a full-on video game to live on in the show’s aftermath. Softonic labeled the game as a combination of Mortal Kombat and Glaidator in its review, and frankly there were a few very similar app games—most notably Blood & Glory—that tackled the same concept (that is, gory gladiator battles) in a more pleasing fashion, despite not having access to licensing agreements from the show. Elsewhere, Betfair’s arcade hosts a Spartacus game that does a nice job of plotting a slot machine around artistic visions of ancient Roman gladiator houses. The game features armor-clad gladiators and images of swords, shields, and lions that call to mind the entirety of gladiator fiction—but not the Spartacus TV show, specifically.
And beyond these loosely related games, there’s pretty much no hint that this show existed only a few years ago. On the plus side, however, the entirety of Spartacus is now available on Netflix, which makes it easy to kick back and binge watch.
But what exactly will you be binge watching? Here’s my quick rundown of what made Spartacus such an enjoyable show.
To begin with, its prequel season is one of the most unabashed explorations of pure combat in a cinematic sense that I can think of on TV. You know how it’s a huge thrill whenever two major knights finally clash swords in Game Of Thrones? Well, that happens about three times per episode during Gods Of The Arena, the second season that was developed but the first chronologically. This season was designed essentially to stall the show while actor Andy Whitfield (who played Spartacus) underwent cancer treatments after headlining the first season, Blood & Sand. Gods Of The Arena focused almost exclusively on the ludus (gladiator training household) at the center of the show, with lanista Batiatus (brilliantly played by John Hannah) training his gladiators in an attempt to gain greater renown as a Roman citizen. A young gladiator named Gannicus (Dustin Clare) is an irresistible sword-and-sandals hero who admirably carries the show in Whitfield’s absence.
This prequel season is almost something of a sideshow, however, with the real content of the show concerning Batiatus’s acquisition of Spartacus as a captured Thraician soldier-turned-gladiator. This is the story we see in Blood & Sand (the first season produced but second chronologically), and put simply, it’s captivating. The whole season is tight with tension as Spartacus rises to the top of the gladiator ranks, feigning compliance with his master’s rule while never truly subduing his desire to revolt, be free, and ultimately reunite with his wife. The fights, sex scenes, and little schemes that take place along the way hold your attention, but it’s the journey of Spartacus that really keeps it fascinating, and Whitfield is sensational in conveying that journey.
Tragically, after sitting out while Gods Of The Arena was filmed, Whitfield ultimately lost his life to cancer. It was not only a blow to the show but an abrupt end to what was fast becoming a very promising career. The show developers carried on admirably. Liam McIntyre stepped into the titular role, and to his credit he spun his own take on Spartacus rather than merely attempting to imitate Whitfield. Two more seasons—Vengeance, and War Of The Damned—carried on depicting the historical tale of Spartacus as a revolting gladiator leading a rebellion that nearly crippled Rome.
A Huffington Post interview with show creator Steven DeKnight revealed that ratings were actually growing through these final two seasons, with the show’s “cult following” beginning to translate into a sizable audience. Unfortunately, as DeKnight noted, the story of Spartacus has a definite end. By the time War Of The Damned was rolling out, adding additional seasons might have been somewhat tedious.
It’s not really the story arc that made Spartacus such an underrated show, though. It was the moment-to-moment action and dialogue between characters that were both delightfully over-the-top and surprisingly human. If one of the popular criticisms of Spartacus is that it was kind of ridiculous, the counterpoint is that the creators and actors alike were fully aware of this fact, and used it to satisfying effect. This was a show with all the severity of Game Of Thrones coupled with a comedic and self-aware touch, and as such it functioned as raw entertainment. That and a slew of pretty impressive performances across the board make this one worth logging on to Netflix to geek out over.