'Spartacus: Vengeance' Review: New Star Lost in Andy Whitfield's Shadow

Last week’s “Spartacus: Vengeance” season opener began with exactly what we want: some good old-fashioned bloodshed.

Spartacus and his small band of runaway slaves defeat of group of Roman soldiers. The show still looks like it should. It’s got the “300”-style CGI blood flying everywhere and plenty of slow motion. It also has a new Spartacus, and his name is Liam McIntyre. And no offense to the man, who seems like a nice enough bloke, but he ain’t no Andy Whitfield.

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The first season of “Spartacus,” dubbed “Blood and Sand,” began a bit slow, but once the show found its footing by the third or fourth episode, it became almost too good television. It openly exploited violence and sex to push forward its story of the slave who fights for freedom and for his wife who has been taken from him after he and a group of his villagers decide enough is enough and refuse to continue helping fight the Romans’ war (how Libertarian of them).

The show featured great performances from all, including John Hannah (who is sorely missed here). But Whitfield was the solid rock of the show. He was a young Clint Eastwood: charismatic, stoic, a great actor. He told the story through his eyes and face, which was quite an accomplishment considering he was either naked or half naked the entire season.

Then tragedy struck, and unfortunately, the great actor is no longer with us. The show continued with a six episode prequel with a brand new lead. It was different but still good, and it continued the “Spartacus” tradition of delving into the darker and more animal-like sides of human nature through its depictions of sex, seduction, bribery, violence, etc. Now the show is put to the real test. Now we have a new Spartacus.

It’s hard to give McIntyre a fair analysis here. It will obviously take some time getting used to him as Spartacus when Whitfield basically owned the role. But here goes; Spartacus seems to have lost a bit of charm here. Sure, he is in some pretty awful situations, but he has been since season one, and Whitfield always brought a slight charm to the character whether he was interacting with friends or enemies. McIntyre just looks serious or depressed all the time. McIntyre also seems to be more of an outward actor. His performance here is based more on looks and brooding. Whitfield managed to bring across more of an emotional depth in his movements and eyes. However, McIntyre is clearly talented and does better than expected with the character. It’s probably not fair comparing him to Whitfield but, for now, the comparisons are impossible to avoid.

“Spartacus: Vengeance” also seems to suffer from a handful of other flaws (at least the season premiere, anyway). The show pretty much gives up on digging into the very gritty and uncomfortable situations that the first and second season did so well. “Spartacus” always managed to take us where other shows wanted to shy away from when it came to human relationships and the tests it put the characters’ morals up to. They’ve abandoned that here, at least for the time being.

Last week’s season opener was far more tame and typical. It’s more of a PG-13 adventure than challenging show. The show also suffers from some bad supporting cast members. Pretty much everyone new to the show is acting like they’re in a high school play (except McIntyre, who seems far more experienced).

The new season also lacks suspense, mainly due to the lack of the gladiator battles and the trusted setting of the House of Batiatus. Both are missed here. We get a random scene thrown in here of a gladiator battle, but we have no idea who the men are that are fighting and, therefore, are not invested. The show also needs to find its footing when it comes to the writing. It doesn’t know where to go or what to do now that the arena and the gladiator storyline is over. Now that Spartacus and his men are fugitives, they hide in what looks like a sewer, and there is very little to drive the narrative forward.

However, most of these criticisms were inevitable for a season opener that had so much pressure on it and so much to accomplish. They had a new lead who had to follow in the footsteps of the man that defined the role. They had a completely new setting with new motives for the characters: they’re no longer slaves and are now fugitives who, one assumes, wish to abolish slavery. The show had also been off the air for about a year (unless you count “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena,” but that truly was a different story). Some of the highlights of the new season are Manu Bennet (who seems to prove he’s more and more talented as this show continues) and the return of the great Lucy Lawless.

Let’s hope “Spartacus” can find its footing like it did before; otherwise, they can’t go on much longer. Whitfield may be sorely missed, but one hopes McIntyre can win the crowd and that the show’s writers will find a good, suspenseful direction for the characters and find a way to make “Spartacus” edgy again (and I don’t mean with sex and violence only, but by examining the darker elements of man like the previous seasons did).

For now, the new season is a bit of a wash, but let’s hope it picks up and lives up to its name.

“Spartacus” airs at 10 p.m. EST Friday nights on Starz.