Shy of their star, the prequel turns its focus on the villainous couple of Batiatus (John Hannah) and Lucretia (a luscious Lucy Lawless), both last seen lying side-by-side in a pool of their own internal fluids in "Blood and Sand"'s final episode. Not yet the Vince McMahons of an ancient Rome who watch their well-oiled slaves battle below from the prime slot of the pulvenus, they take in the games amid the stands, like the rest of the commoners.
In half a dozen hour-long episodes, we watch them progress from power-mad to powerful. So uncorrupted is Lucretia at this point in the epic tale, she hasn't yet cheated on Batiatus, but old friend Gaia (Jaime Murray, TV's "Warehouse 13") cracks away at that prim and proper exterior with the aid of opium. Hey, smoke 'em if you've got 'em. Meanwhile, Batiatus moves up the sports ladder with Gannicus (Dustin Clare, TV's "McLeod's Daughters"), this story's Spartacus stand-in.
Even without Whitfield, "Gods of the Arena" plays just like "Blood and Sand," for both good and ill. In the former, you get exciting and exceedingly graphic gladiator action sequences, along with sex scenes that take advantage of pay cable's lax restraints. In the latter, you get a story that's not quite as compelling as creator Steven S. DeKnight believes it to be; the episodes could be cut in half without losing a single plot point. The characters say a lot that says anything at all.
Standing out among a myriad of extras, the tongue-torn-from-cheek "10 Easy Steps to Dismemberment" is like a greatest-hits reel of gore a pun-packed, "Pop-Up Video"-style guide to gladiator deaths. Lawless participates in a seven-minute quasi-mockumentary about her day on the set, and I give her points for showing up sans makeup. There are five minutes of "Arena Bloopers," more annoying than funny, and the post-production process is detailed in the very interesting "Final Execution."
Potentially the best extra of the Blu-ray edition is a battle sequence rendered in 3-D. But you have one of those newfangled 3-D TVs to play it, which the packaging fails to state. Oh, well. I'd feel more left out if they had added a dimension to the sex scenes; I'm guessing that's next season. Rod Lott