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September 12, 2011

TV on Blu-Ray Review: Spartacus: Gods of the Arena

It's never been really easy to find too many programs on TV and cable that both my wife and I could watch together. As much as I’d like to watch Desperate Housewives, Wipe-Out and the ample amount of reality TV garbage we tended to feed ourselves on a weekly basis, there was really nothing on that we both could watch that garnered even a modicum of excitement. That is until we discovered STARZ Entertainment's Spartacus: Blood and Sand almost two years ago. The team of Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert and creator Stephen S. Deknight exposed unsuspecting viewers to what may be the most graphically violent, sexually explicit and most importantly, exciting series of all time. Unfortunately, Spartacus himself, Andy Whitfield, fell ill with a case of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma; any chance of him reprising his role as Spartacus in the near future was low.

Buy Spartacus: Gods of the Arena [Blu-ray] or DVD

Losing your star should spell doom for your show, right? Not by a long shot. The talented ensemble cast of Lucy Lawless (Lucretia), John Hannah (Batiatus) and Manu Bennet (Crixus) and several very sound newcomers have come together to bring us a very welcome prequel to Spartacus: Blood and Sand called Spartacus: God's of the Arena.

You can say what you will about prequels as they seem to be the go-to narrative for films struggling for ideas to continue a story. With this cable series, while shorter than the previous season, it works masterfully. Instead of having Spartacus as the main focus the series sets its sights the evolution of the House of Capua, Batiatis' struggles overcoming his father’s hatred towards Lucretia, the rise of Crixus and the dominance of gladiator, Gannicus (Dustin Clare).

The series is divided into six separate episodes:

1. Past Transgressions
2. Missio
3. Paterfamilias
4. Beneath The Mask
5. Reckoning
6. The Bitter End

Fans that caught the series initially will be delighted to know that five of the six episodes are extended. Past Transgressions, Paterfamilias, Beneath The Mask, Reckoning and The Bitter End all include footage not in the STARZ broadcasts. The additional footage mainly consists of some extra narrative but is still very cool to see nonetheless.

The story structure of the Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is fairly straight forward as it basically just answers all the questions you may have had about how these folks came to be. Crixus wasn't always the successful gladiator being that he was considerably smaller than most of his foes. Throughout the season this very raw talent rises above his limitations. His journey there is what makes it so compelling as is the superb John Hannah. Hannah will be sorely missed for this upcoming season but for now you can enjoy Batiatis becoming the Roman era's answer to Vince McMahon.

Dustin Clare was huge in his role as Gannicus. Being new blood in a series and having to basically fill the role of not yet present Spartacus character, he and Manu Bennett take control of the "hero" role. Oenomaus (Peter Mensah) is also a much more sympathetic character having not yet taken the reign of Doctore.

With all your great heroes you better have some solid villains to off-set them. Spartacus: Gods of the Arena has plenty of that. Batiatus hasn't quite become the charming bastard that we know and love, his father on the other hand, Titus (Jeffrey Thomas) is a wonderfully grumpy senior citesen with little compassion for anything. On the Spartacus asshole meter Titus doesn't even come close to Tullius (Stephen Lovett ). Tullius manages to pull of his most evil deeds with a shit-eating grin on his mug. Lovatt is perfect in his role.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena has an impressive amount of extras. Not only are their six commentaries -one each of the episodes - but we also get to see several short featurettes: Starz Studios: Gods of the Arena, Convention Panel, Arena Bloopers, On Set With Lucy Lawless, Post Production: The Final Execution, Weapons of Mass Disruption, Battle Royale: Anatomy of a Scene,10 Easy Steps to Dismemberment, Dressed to Kill and Enter the Arena: Production Design.

There's an option to watch the Battle Royale sequence in 3D from the episode The Bitter End. If you have 3D capability it will definitely knock your socks as it's rendered beautifully. The blooper reel is surprisingly amusing for what is such a serious show. John Hannah trips over little piglets, Peter Mensah has trouble with prop swords and other assorted flubs are featured. If you haven't seen an episode in the series I recommend you not watch 10 Easy Steps to Dismemberment as it showcases the goriest money shots from the season.
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena may be considerably shorter than the previous season but that doesn't effect the greatness of this set. Anchor Bay has not only done an admirable job with this richly detailed hi-def rendering but they've managed to spoil fans with some excellent extra features. Highly recommended!

Rest in Peace, Andy (1972 - 2011)

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