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Gladiators, blood and politics return in Starz's unique 'Spartacus: Vengeance'

Blood flying toward the camera in a spurting fountain. Swords slicing through flesh as men scream in horror. White hot brands sinking into human flesh as the unfortunate recipient of the mark howls in agony.

These are just a few of the in-your-face action scenes powering Spartacus: Vengeance, the original series on Starz that plays like Gladiator for the small screen — complete with slow-motion, super-explicit sword fights in high-definition images.

Focused on the exploits of a band of gladiators who escape their brutal training school during the time of the ancient Roman Empire, Starz's Spartacus is filled with the kind of killing and bloody fights once called "a bit of the old ultra violence" in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange film.

So you'd think Lucy Lawless, who once starred as a behind-kicking Amazon in the classic TV show Xena: Warrior Princess, would miss getting in on all that fun, stuck in a role as Lucretia Batiatus, the scheming wife of the man who owned the gladiator school.

You would be SO wrong.

"I never liked the physical thing," said Lawless, whose '90s-era work as ruthless warlord-turned-heroine Xena remains her best-known role. "I'm strong, but I have no coordination; I was black and blue for two years solid because I would whack myself in the face or get punched. It was God's cosmic joke on me to give me a gig like that."

My fanboy fantasies dashed, I went on to ask Lawless about the challenges of this season, which finds Spartacus trying to carry on after the death of its original star, Andy Whitfield, at age 39 last year of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The cable channel filmed a Spartacus prequel, Gods of the Arena, without Whitfield that aired early last year. But though he rebounded after his earlier diagnosis, eventually the cancer returned and took his life, requiring the casting of 29-year-old Aussie Liam McIntyre as the new Spartacus.

The Vengeance season marks the first episodes featuring McIntyre playing the same character, picking up the story just weeks after Spartacus and his fellow gladiators killed a houseful of guards and party guests gathered to watch a death match.

McIntyre seems to pick up the mantle of Spartacus ably, though Lawless admitted the fans will be the final judge of whether he replaced Whitfield adequately.

"It was certainly in the lap of the gods," Lawless said. "Andy was so supportive of them recasting, because he wanted everybody to keep working. There's been plenty of times when we thought it might not go, and you just sit and watch and wait."

Lawless plays a much less physical role, as the only survivor of the massacre at the gladiator school, who loses a child through a sword wound. As the new season begins, she is found, shell-shocked, swimming in the blood of all the guests and guards killed in her house.

(Because Starz is a premium cable channel, there's lots of nudity and graphic scenes, including a close-up shot of a captured gladiator's tongue cut off).

If Spartacus' fights are one side of this unique series, Lawless' Lucretia embodies the other end; a masterful manipulator of political machinations and sex-filled intrigue, which lend an R-rated, soap-opera flair to the story.

Eventually, her character becomes a valued symbol for the Roman population, which she parlays into the notion that she receives prophecies from the gods.

"She's going to have to go looking for friends in very unlikely places," said Lawless, cagey about revealing too many details. (Hint: she starts a romance with a very unlikely ally). "Her mental state is a very important key to Lucretia from here on out. But I want you to know that by the end Lucretia … all of her dreams will be fulfilled, one way or another."

Another TV critic has compared Spartacus with PBS' genteel World War I drama Downton Abbey, for both's series' emphasis on social roles, marriages for love, social standing and power, along with a bucketload of political intrigue.

Not sure I would go that far, but the combination of intrigue and blood can be compelling, as Starz present a series as brutally graphic and politically involved as modern television might allow.

"It makes the audience feel clever because nobody's saying what they mean, yet the audience can figure it out," Lawless said. "So the audience is always a little bit ahead of some of the characters in the room."

, TiVo or Ti-NO?

Touch, special preview at 9 p.m. Wednesday on WTVT-Ch. 13. Dear Fox TV producers: There is a problem when the most compelling character in your new TV series only speaks twice in the debut episode. But the unspeaking, developmentally challenged kid at the heart of Kiefer Sutherland's new show is the only character type we haven't seen before in this ambitious-yet-convoluted series about a child who seems autistic, but actually can predict the future by seeing patterns in electromagnetic energy.

Sutherland spends most of the episode reminding us he's not super-spy Jack Bauer from his last big TV role on 24 – losing a fistfight and moping around, forced to quit his job as a journalist to care for a son who won't speak or touch him. Danny Glover is the kind of character Spike Lee once derided as the "magical mystical negro" who pops up in one scene to explain why the kid is so special.

Eventually, we see the kid unite a grieving father, guilt-wracked firefighter and bomb-wearing terrorist in a grand connection so complicated it will make your brain hurt. Ti-NO until they work out the kinks when the series returns in March.

Spartacus: Vengeance

debuts at 10 p.m. Friday on Starz.

'Spartacus: Vengeance'

debuts at 10 p.m. Friday on Starz.

Gladiators, blood and politics return in Starz's unique 'Spartacus: Vengeance' 01/22/12 [Last modified: Sunday, January 22, 2012 6:48pm]
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