Welcome again to Gone Too Soon, where I talk about shows that have already been canceled (in three seasons or less) and beg you to watch them anyway.
When I first heard about Spartacus, the STARZ gladiator drama that premiered back in 2010 (and ended a mere three years later), I immediately wrote it off. I’m not proud of that moment. It seemed like nothing but an exercise in masculinity—self-congratulatory and entirely gratuitous. Then, after a few weeks into the first season I stumbled upon an episode thanks to my younger brother, and at first I thought my reservations were proven right. The first scene I saw was a gladiator fight (no surprise), and there was no shortage of fake blood and gaping wounds (seeing the inside of someone’s neck after their head has been cut off is a pretty common sight in this show). I stuck around anyway, though, and what I found was an incredibly written show full of political conspiracies, explorations into social and class standings, and one of the most honest portrayals of race, gender, and sexuality I’ve seen on TV in a while.
If it seems like I’m talking this show up a lot, fear not: it isn’t perfect. It’s a biographical drama (although the term “biography” should be used pretty lightly here—the show takes a lot of historical liberties) of Spartacus, a Thracian slave in ancient Rome that led a rebellion against a supposedly unshakeable empire. However, this isn’t HBO’s Rome. It’s still full of absurd battle scenes, CGI-embellished violence, and so much sex it actually gets a little boring. But it doesn’t fall prey to so many of the sexist and racist tropes that most shows (often unknowingly) perpetuate. Instead, Spartacus presents a rich world full of women, people of color, and queer characters that not only hold their own against their white, straight male counterparts, but usually outshine them.
There are two worlds at play in Spartacus: those of the slaves, and those of the Roman elite. Spartacus (played by Andy Whitfield who tragically passed away after the first season was released, and then by Liam McIntyre for the last two seasons), our titular character, vows revenge against Rome for enslaving him and taking his wife away, but he has to learn to play the game; brute force isn’t enough against an empire. He’s bitter and out for revenge, but he’s a good person, kind and smart and desperate to correct the wrongs that have been committed against him. He’s compelling, yes, but Spartacus is far from the only character worth watching for. Lucretia (the incomparable Lucy Lawless) and Ilithyia (Viva Bianca) play two Roman women entangled in dangerous schemes, with a healthy dose of sexual intrigue between the two. Barca (Antonio Te Maioha), the hyper-masculine champion gladiator, who is impossibly gentle to his male lover and his pet birds. Nasir (Pana Hema Taylor), a former bed slave who becomes a loyal fighter in Spartacus’ army, and whose relationship with Spartacus’ second-in-command, Argon (Dan Feuerriegel) is one of the most moving aspects of the show.
Spartacus is refreshing not just because it’s a legitimately good show (although the third and final season suffers from a disjointed and overreaching narrative and a seriously anti-climactic ending that should have been better), but because it’s a road to better television. Spartacus doesn’t reduce characters to a single trait (whether that trait be sexuality, gender, or race), which, for the record, is just lazy and terrible writing. It just treats each character as people, with their own history and desires. It also boasts an incredibly rich and diverse cast; many of the actors, including Manu Bennett, who plays the famed gladiator and Spartacus’ partner in his rebellion, Crixus, are of indigenous and non-European descent. Bennett is of Maori descent and often speaks on what it’s like to be an indigenous actor reaching mainstream success, and how proud he is to represent his people and culture—and he also doesn’t shy away from voicing his unhappiness with the way Hollywood does its casting, explaining that he doesn’t often get to be the hero simply because he does not fit into the norm. Hema Taylor is Maori as well, and Peter Mensah, who plays the gladiators’ mentor Oenomaus, is Ghanaian. That does not even begin to cover it. These actors play a wide variety of characters on the show, from heroes and villains to every nuance in between. For a show that takes place before Christ was born, it does a better a job of reflecting the diversity of the world around me than most shows airing on TV today. All three seasons of the series are currently streaming on Netflix. It seems pretty simple to me: sit down and watch it.