Season 1, Episode 1
Date of airing: January 22, 2010 (Starz & Encore)
Nielsen ratings information: 0.659 million viewers, 0.4 rating in Households, 0.3/1 with Adults 18-49 (0.58 million viewers on Encore)
This show went through some history, both with its titular actor, as well as the way it became one of the top shows in my schedule between 2010 and 2012, yet faltered so quickly into the realm of “I’m tired of this” in 2013, before then turning into quite the solid action pulp show that can be watched when entertainment is needed, but no one would be bothered by missing it. It’s a very interesting show to go through, but only if people are ready to get sold into the visual aspects of it and don’t get alienated by the sometimes miserable dialogue scenes, the softcore sex scenes or the 300-like scenes of violence that may or may look ludicrous and hilarious at the same time. Ludicrous, because it makes SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND look kind of cheap. Hilarious, because when the nameless Thracian, who is now called Spartacus, was spearing the last of the four gladiators in the ring, a fountain of blood was filling the screen, and it was a moment that made me laugh just a little bit, as I see it as a failed attempt at drowning the screen with blood, making me wonder if that visual style is even needed in the show.
It’s the style that defined the opening hour of SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND. Characters are barely to be found and not even the titular soldier-turned-slave managed to get a few seconds of time in which he could prove to be a character with depth. Granted, loving his wife and having to leave her for the sake of war and protection afterwards is not only noble, but also gave the Thracian purpose, yet this episode was a little more than 53 minutes minus the closing credits and there was no minute that made me think the characters are awesome or giving me a reason why I should be interested in them. Maybe the show did not quite know yet how to introduce the characters when more than half of the episode is set outside of Capua, which will be the setting of the remainder of this season. Maybe this episode did not know how to properly introduce the nameless Thracian to the audience without having to stick him into the arena right from the beginning, to then give the character the life of a slave and gladiator. I almost find it of courage that Steven S. DeKnight, a writer I appreciate (not just because of his stunning season of DAREDEVIL, but also because he’s a nice dude on the social medias), gave the nameless Thracian this kind of back story, knowing that it would make the pilot look much different from the rest of the show and maybe even alienate the audience before the show has properly begun. Because really, the show starts off with the greatness a few minutes into the next episode, making this hour of television quite the weird experience.
This episode also defined “style over substance.” You get to see that the show is all shot in front of blue and green screen and that not a single second was produced on exterior sets, and you’re allowed to notice it, because it’s part of the show’s DNA. You get to see boobs and pubic hair, because the show is run by men, the characters are portrayed by men, and because SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND is a premium cable television drama, it can allow getting naked with its characters and turn into softcore for two scenes (as well as some of the moments in Albinius’ home during which some of the naked slaves decided to lure the audience with more softcore moments). I don’t mind sex and boobies (or pubic hair), but one has to be careful that the entire show is not being defined by the notion of porn and porn-like dialogue, when the premise of the show is an entirely different one. I would love to know what the discussion about the level of softcore porn was in the writers room while developing the season, because at one point someone had to make the decision to draw the line and focus on the titular character, let alone the political intrigue that was oh so softly teased with Batiatus and his fiery eyes against Solonius during the final two chapters of the episode.
54 minutes and you can’t even say what the show will be like for the rest of the season. Is it going to be style-over-substance for the next twelve hours or will depth and meaning and storytelling find their way into the narrative? Let me spoil you just a little bit by saying that the latter is the case. SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND may like the style a little too much and continue to fixate on it when there should have always been more room for character development and the story, but as soon as the rest of the character pool has been introduced with the next episode, the show does not need boobs and blood to make the viewers’ eyes grow wide open. The fact that this did not work as much for the first episode almost could have ruined the show’s chances in January of 2010, when it was battling its way through the Nielsen ratings.