When I thought about writing this review, I realized that I had to overcome the urge to simply analyze the positive and negative elements, and rather, give a reason(s) why you might be inclined to pass or indulge in watching this series.
Production wise, this is 300 meets Gladiator - without the benefit of either Frank Miller or Ridley Scott. Spartacus:BaS is brutally graphic, and oft times gratuitously so. More on that later.
The story of Spartacus, as we've come to know it through media, was written by Howard Fast (Spartacus (North Castle Books)
). The story was made popular by the Stanley Kubrick movie production in 1960; there was also a 2004 made-for-tv production as well.
Having not read the book, nor seen the other two movies, I will not bother with comparing. Comments and reviews seem to indicate the novel tells the tale much better - but, that's almost always the case. I will say that, overall, the story behind the Starz production was pretty good. The arcs and subplots were well handled, and there were certainly enough interesting twists and turns to take the viewer right up to the dramatic end.
For the story(-ies) alone, it is probably worth a look.
Otherwise, the production is pretty rough. It is a graphic novel come alive without artistry or clear intent. I mentioned Frank Miller earlier, and if you've seen either 300 or Sin City, you can see the artist's hands in either production. There are subtleties of elements that define an artist work - and those subtleties are missing from Spartacus.
Spartacus contains unbelievable amounts of blood and sex and nudity. This would suggest that the target audience, the intent of telling the story this way, is male; specifically the target is to immerse a man into the dark, bloody, gritty story. But, frankly, if that is the case, then this is a homo-erotic fantasy. There is more male frontal nudity in this production than I've ever seen - anywhere. Including the sort of stuff that Cinemax shows late at night.
I'm not homophobic, and I do not mind meaningful nudity in a story, nor did I mind the homosexual relationship story arcs (which are all but expressly inevitable in retelling stories from that cultural history). But it reaches a point where it is gratuitous, outside artistic vision, and perhaps only present for some grim shock value.
All of which would be fine, if the intent was to market Starz' Spartacus:BaS, as homosexual porn. But the rest of the visual elements suggest otherwise. The blood, CGI splattered everywhere, the graphic depictions of intestines being spilled, of throats being cut, of vomit and infectious wounds and worms - these are the sort of graphic, edgy, visual elements that you want to pitch to attract male heterosexuals, "manly men".
It would be unrealistic to expect zero nudity in the representation of such a hedonistic culture, and I think it would be further untrue to the core material to not have a degree of homosexual interaction. In portraying war and combat, yes, there's going to be blood and graphic violence.
I thought the blood was often gratuitous - the male nudity more so. The production fails to choose a target audience. Mind you, I like blood and guts. That can be fun. I'm not remotely prudish. When I say "gratuitous", I mean it exceeds the boundary of what I feel is a reasonable artistic license in producing a visual image.
Now, none of that may trouble you. It's arguable, and a matter of taste, whether certain scenes and conflicts benefit from the graphic nature of the production.
For instance, there's a scene where Ilithyia is choosing a gladiator from amongst new recruits. She's a perv, so they are asked to get naked, which the camera reveals from her perspective. When they do so, the camera slowly pans from behind the men, revealing each and every buttocks. Then her mouth drops open, and she chooses the Gaul with the "horse c*ck." Which the camera shows. Three scenes later (spoiler), the man is punished for an offense, and they show him crucified and his penis cut off. The stump where his penis was spurts blood out onto the sand. (end spoiler)
The writing, particularly the dialogue, is flat and unimaginative for the first few episodes. The series benefits from a few strong actors who carry the entire production - otherwise, especially in the beginning, there is no passion, no chemistry between the characters.
Andy Whitfield, as Spartacus, is an excellent actor with great emotional range (considering the role), and I understand the buzz surrounding his departure from the cast to deal with health issues. Otherwise? Even the formidable Lucy Lawless, as Lucretia, falls a little flat (and for some unknown reason, they have her painted white as a ghost. It looks horrible. As a lower class Roman citizen, she could have had a little color.), but I'm not sure if that's the writing or her. (The upshot of her presence is that she is an attractive woman who spends a great deal of time in various states of undress).
Manu Bennett, as Crixus, is entirely horrid to watch, he has the emotional range of a monkey. Most of the others have very little believable emotional range. Even the accents are muttered and mumbled and fall flat. To be fair, this was more apparent in the beginning of the season - by the finale, there is some character chemistry and comfort.
If you're watching this for the acting, however, you'll be disappointed in not only the writing/dialogue, but in pretty much everyone but Whitfield, and arguably Lawless. If the others have shining moments, they are rare.
Overall? The series succeeds in telling a well-paced story; of that, there can be little argument. The acting and dialogue fall a little flat, and the production is gratuitously graphic without clear intent of who they're trying to entertain.
I'd give this 3.5 out of 5 stars.