Starz has tried its hardest to work its way into the world of premium original programming. Attempting to strike gold like HBO, Showtime, FX, and AMC before them, they seemed to have found a pretty big hit with 'Spartacus: Blood and Sand,' then tragedy struck. Andy Whitfield, the star of the series, was diagnosed with cancer, which kept him from returning to the role he perfectly embodied. This forced Starz to think of something fast. 'Spartacus: Gods of the Arena' was born, a prequel to 'Blood and Sand,' which focused on the gladiator training house of Batiatus and the nefarious exploits of its inhabitants.
Batiatus (John Hannah) is trying his hardest to get himself into the prestigious games he feels he and his gladiators deserve. The games are highly politicized though, and he can't seem to get any of the more popular nighttime matches. His wife, Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) – a poor woman's Atia of the Julii – schemes right along with her husband. Both of them trying to bring honor to the family name and the house.
Many of the old characters are back, except now you get to see how they came to be. We see just how Oenomaus (Peter Mensah) became Doctore. We get to see the origins of Crixus (Manu Bennett) who ends up playing a very important role in 'Blood and Sand.' Gannicus (Dustin Clare, who bares an uncanny resemblance to a young Shawn Michaels) is the champion of the house. A gladiator who is supposed to be the best in the city. He even demonstrates his prowess by taking down one of his foes blindfolded.
I enjoyed the first season of 'Spartacus.' I enjoyed it’s over-the-top violence, and its story about a man leading a slave revolt. Sadly, 'Gods of the Arena' lacks any sort of moral underpinning that 'Blood and Sand' had. Yes, I know it's strange to be talking about morals when discussing a show that revels in slitting throats and orgies, but it's true. 'Gods of the Arena' tries to titillate more than anything else. Its sole purpose seems to be for them to see how far they can push the envelope when it comes to violence, sex, and crudeness. Perhaps the preposterous nature of the first season came off more as a novelty than anything else. This season seems to be clinging to it rather than having fun with it. Sometimes they just take it too far. I've seen men urinate in movies, which is no biggie. I've even seen movies where people urinated on by other people. Gross, but still, not a big deal. However, in an effort to push everything to the utmost extreme, 'Gods of the Arena' has to actually show full frontal a man peeing on someone else. Do I really need to see something like that? This is the reason why I don’t turn my head and peer over into the other urinal in public restrooms. Some things aren’t meant to titillate or even entertain. I have a hard time understanding what purpose a shot like that fulfills, if any.
Unfortunately, I never felt drawn into 'Gods of the Arena.' I found myself missing the presence of Whitfield. He brought a certain energy to the screen that's sorely lacking in this season of the show. Because I wasn't drawn into the story, or the characters, I found every instance of envelope pushing becoming more and more tedious.
I wanted to like this season of 'Spartacus,' because I thought the first season was so much fun. Sadly, with the loss of Whitfield the show had to change directions abruptly. It hurt, and it shows. Still, I think most fans of 'Blood and Sand' will enjoy 'Gods of the Arena' equally, I'm just not one of them.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Like 'Blood and Sand,' 'Gods of the Arena' comes in a digi-book packaging complete with a clear slipcover. I'm not a big fan of this packaging because it has slip-in folds where the discs go instead of the disc having their own protective hub. The folds where the discs slip in have episode lists on them so you know what episodes are on what disc. There are two 50-GB Blu-ray Discs included. This is a region A release.
Like 'Blood and Sand,' 'Gods of the Arena' comes complete with a stellar looking 1080p transfer. This is a shining, shimmering video presentation, one that highlights the show's tremendous HD look. It features wonderfully defined details, colors, and shadows.
Facial details are top-notch, featuring each and every ragged scar upon the gladiators' faces. Detail is so fine that it's easy to see the individual pores on the skin of the show's stars. The show's steamy sex scenes benefit from this high amount of detail. You fans of Lucy Lawless will miss nothing when it comes to her nude scenes.
Colors are intentionally boosted to give the show that '300,' graphic novel feel. Like it's almost larger than life. The yellows and browns of the dirt of the arena and training yard glisten while the crimson blood spatter is bright and bold. Yes, some of the visual effects here could use some work. It helps that the show is meant to look like a blood-soaked fantasy instead of being realistic, but there are times where the clarity of the HD image pulls you out when you see a slit throat that looks particularly fake.
Dodgy effects aside, 'Gods of the Arena' boasts a very good looking transfer. One that, in many instances, can be used as demo material. If you found yourself enjoying the immaculate looking of 'Blood and Sand' on Blu-ray, then you're guaranteed to like the way this looks too.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix provided to 'Gods of the Arena' rivals the power and tenacity of 'Blood and Sand's audio presentation. This mix boasts a heaping helping of deep LFE-laden scenes. Bass is constantly present whether it's due to the low drum beat of the soundtrack, or the crunching sounds of swords crashing against shields.
Surround sound is also a delight. Whenever the gladiators find themselves in the arena, the roar of the crowds is amply represented in the rear channels. The clarity is so fine that you can hear individual yelling and heckling from the raucous, blood-thirsty audience. Dialogue is always clear and concise in the front and center speakers.
If the mix has one tiny weakness, like 'Blood and Sand,' it may be pumped up just a wee bit too loud. Some of the fight sequences are absolutely jarring. Yes, I know that they're supposed to be that way for the most part, but there are times where your ears perk up and you realize that this moment is just a bit too loud for comfort. Other than that though, 'Gods of the Arena' boasts a sound mix that will truly test the limits of your sound system. This is one to show off indeed. May I suggest any of the arena fight scenes as demo material?
I wasn't as drawn into 'Gods of the Arena' as I was 'Blood and Sand.' It seemed like this part of the series relied too much on its jarring violence and its over-indulgent sex scenes and not enough on character development and story. 'Blood and Sand' performed a subtle balancing act of each of those parts. A balancing act that 'Gods of the Arena' just can't pull off. However, fans of the series will love the fact that the video and audio presentations are as good as ever and the special features are packed with variety. This set is best suited for fans only.