NEW YORK — "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" isn't exactly put-your-feet-up-and-relax television.
Premiering on cable's Starz network at 8 p.m., this new action-adventure series grabs you with its raciness, derring-do and visual pizazz.
It's based on the real-life Thracian slave-turned-rabblerouser from the first century B.C. (and, a couple of millenniums later, on the Stanley Kubrick film starring Kirk Douglas). But more, this TV reimagining teems with the sort of fabulousness that thrilled, inspired and grossed out fans of Zack Snyder's digitized masterpiece, "300."
Like that 2006 film, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" is a blend of hyper-realism and epic fantasy where, during battle, ragged streams of a victim's spilled blood pause lazily in mid-air before soaking the ground.
It's a world where brawny gym rats clad themselves in circa-B.C. thongs, or less; where steamy trysts and orgies are the rage; where even leading lady Lucy Lawless ("Xena: Warrior Princess") has her moments in the buff.
One spicy scene finds her, as Lucretia, about to get romantic with husband Batiatus (John Hannah), a Roman sports impresario whose "ludus" — an extreme training camp for gladiators — is where Spartacus is enslaved. Lucretia and Batiatus are hot for each other, that's clear. But to get things started with maximum ease, each spouse calls upon an attendant to supply the needed foreplay.
In short, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" is a series guaranteed to make you sit up and take notice.
Andy Whitfield stars as Spartacus, who is powerful, rebellious and charismatic. He's a warrior who seemingly can't be defeated, which means in the arena he could prove to be a valuable attraction for Batiatus.
He's a crowd-pleaser all right. But he's also a handful, the sort of guy who — if you remember your history — just might go and stir up a slave revolt. That presumably comes later in the series, which already has been picked up for another season.
But early in this first 13-episode cycle, he and Batiatus form a tense slave-master bond. Spartacus can help bolster Batiatus' shaky revenue, while Batiatus agrees to help Spartacus get what he wants most: not the fame and glory most gladiators seek, but a reunion with his beloved wife, Sura (Erin Cummings), who, early on, is torn from his arms and, like him, sold into slavery.
Visions of Sura infuse his dreams. During his life of almost indescribable hardship at the ludus — "where men are forged into gods, with blood their ambrosia," roars their trainer — it is Sura who keeps Spartacus going.
The series boasts impressive behind-the-camera credits. Executive producers include Sam Raimi (director of the "Spider-Man" trilogy) and Rob Tapert (creator of "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and "Xena," which made Lawless a global star in the 1990s).
Tapert, by the way, is also married to Lawless.
"He told me, 'Look, there is this role that might be right for you. But there is some nudity,'" Lawless recalls in a recent interview.
"I said, 'It's not gratuitous?' And he said, 'No, it's all within the context of the story.' And I said, 'I'm there.'"
"That's a tricky sort of role to put your wife in," muses Whitfield, who has joined her for the interview.
"Bad Girls 'R' Me, it seems," Lawless chuckles. "But it was really confronting. I'm 41, I've never done it before. I'm not used to getting my kit off (British slang for stripping) in front of all those people — and pretending to like it."
"I stayed PRETTY naked most of the time," remarks Whitfield, thinking of those leather Speedos. "Then the first time you do a sex scene and you're NAKED-naked, you get used to it pretty quick. Afterward, people are like, 'Do you want a robe?' 'No, I'm fine.' 'Wear a robe, please! This is the lunch queue!'"
Playing Spartacus "is my dream job," says Whitfield, 38, a British-born actor whose credits until now were concentrated on Australian TV. "This is guaranteed to change you as an actor, to put you through the wringer. Every emotional situation you could ever imagine is going to happen to Spartacus!"
Lawless says she wanted in on the show because "it would be a new kind of television. It was bringing in the technology and scale that modern audiences encounter at the cinema, but on a budget and schedule that would work for TV."
Shot in Lawless' native New Zealand, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" is filmed entirely indoors against a green screen that is later superseded by CGI wizardry. For example, when Spartacus faces beastly opponents in the sprawling arena, it only looks like there are stands filled with multitudes of rowdy spectators.
"You don't have 40,000 people available for those scenes," Lawless notes, "so you get 100 and keep dressing them up and moving them around, and jigsaw the whole thing together with a computer."
It works. The show looks gorgeous, from its grisly, fancifully staged blood-sport to the majestic scudding skies that loom beyond the ludus training yard.
But "Spartacus" is more than pretty (often pretty shocking) pictures.
"As time progresses, I think viewers will be invested in their relationships with the characters," says Whitfield.
And Lawless adds, "We want viewers to see themselves in the characters, to feel they understand what motivates those people. Even if you wouldn't behave the same way yourself, we want you to be complicit."