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TV Tonight: Centurions vs. Gladiators

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Tonight sees the debuts of two series eagerly anticipated by various fanboys and -girls: SyFy’s BSG prequel Caprica and Starz’s gladiator saga Spartacus: Blood and Sand. I hoped to review both at length, but that dream has become another victim of my time crunch. But I’ll toss out a couple quick opinions on each: namely, Spartacus thumbs down, Caprica, thumbs (mostly) up.

I’ve seen three episodes of Caprica including the two-hour pilot that airs tonight (and was out on DVD last year). Set in peacetime, before the human-Cylon war of Battlestar Galactica, it explores how a cybernetics mogul (Eric Stoltz) created the virtual reality and artificial-inteligence tech that would lead to the Centurions and other Cylons who would eventually try to destroy humanity.

More of a family saga and soap than BSG, it actually has the feel less of a prequel than a separate show, and I mean that as a compliment. The pilot has several callbacks to BSG that I found distracting (and one point, some characters declare, “So say we all”). With the second two episodes, I began to forget, except for references to the various “tribes,” that I was in the BSG-verse, which was to me a good sign. If anything, the show seems like a continuation of some of the same ideas Ronald Moore seemed ready to explore in his stillborn show Virtuality: the nature of sentience, the realness of virtual reality and the possibilities, and ethical dilemmas, that arise when it becomes possible to separate a person’s consciousness from their body. (A theme it also shares with the latter episodes of Dollhouse.) It starts slow and there’s more melodrama than I’d like, but I’m sticking with it for now.

To be fair to Spartacus, I have so far watched only two episodes of the four I was sent. (Quick summary: Greek soldier is captured, forced to fight in Roman gladiator arena. Also, Lucy Lawless gets practically naked.) Some critics I respect, like Mo Ryan, say it gets better as it goes on. I hope so, because the pilot was the worst thing I’d seen on television in a long time: unintentional-laughter-inducing dialogue coupled with lots of ultraviolence and stylized gore—in the CGI fashion of the movie 300—that only served to remind me how quickly that 300’s stylized violence has become a visual cliché. (Seriously, it gets to the point that whenever a character raises a sword, you know exactly how it’s going to go: swing, freeze-frame, 90-degree camera turn, slow-mo swipe through a neck or a limb, big spurty gout of blood, then return to regular motion speed as the screen fills with a red wash. Guy with giant pecs grimaces or screams in triumph. Repeat.)

Now, I wasn’t a 300 fan; if you loved that movie, you may love this show. And the second episode was an improvement. But it improved only to mediocrity: there was less showy violence and more attention to Roman intrigues, but with a self-seriousness that made the show seem like a low-rent Rome.

I’ll come back to Caprica at some point later, once it’s gotten going. I may or may not come back to Spartacus, depending on whether it really does improve in the later episodes. Which it will have plenty of time to do: it’s already been picked up for a second season, and there seems to be enough anticipation for it that this one may be pretty much critic-proof. Which show (if either) are you planning to watch?