Hot ‘Spartacus’ Promotes Leather Loincloth; More ‘Big Love’: TV

The title character is gone, but swords and skin remain in the second season of “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena,” the kitschy gladiator bloodfest on Starz.

A six-episode prequel to last year’s “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” “Gods of the Arena” was designed as a stopgap while original star Andy Whitfield recuperated from treatment for non- Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After the cancer returned, Whitfield dropped out of “Blood and Sand” altogether.

Picking up the mantle and leather loincloth is long-haired Dustin Clare as gladiator Gannicus, the hard-bodied hero in the stable of fighters owned by devious politico Batiatus (John Hannah). Batiatus wants to overthrow his father and intends to gain advantage via the gladiator games.

Lucy Lawless returns from the original series, along with Hannah, Peter Mensah and Manu Bennett. Also back are the CGI decapitations and slo-mo bloodletting.

All the buff bodies get naked, and couplings (and triplings) of all varieties get their due. (“Spartacus” is as gay-friendly as Lawless’s old “Xena: Warrior Princess.”) The overwrought dialogue (“I see in his eyes dreams of blood and glory!”) contributes to the histrionic appeal of this addictive nonsense.

“Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” premieres tomorrow on Starz at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: **

‘Big Love’

In last week’s first episode of the fifth and final season of HBO’s finely detailed “Big Love,” polygamous Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) entertained his sprawling family with a rendition of the old Johnny Horton hit “North to Alaska.”

“I’d build for all my Jennies, a honeymoon home,” he croons, slyly changing the original singular Jenny to plural.

Clever flourishes like that go a long way in making “Big Love” as likable as it is. And if ever a show needed likability, “Big Love” is it.

This season, the series directly confronts its ick-factor with a storyline that has the clan finally living openly and very publicly.

Bill, elected to the Utah state senate last season, faces consitutent ire, political opposition and marital discord as a result. And with three wives, that’s a lot of discord. Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is drinking, Nicolette (Chloe Sevigny) is as petulant as ever, and the unhappy Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) is about to drop a bombshell that could unravel the family.

Guest stars this season include Grant Show (as a motivational speaker) and Ellen Burstyn, reprising her scene- stealing role as Barb’s independent-minded mother. Using polygamy the way “True Blood” uses vampirism -- as a metaphor for oppression and civil rights --“Big Love” has never been entirely convincing or even plausible. But as family drama, big is better than most.

“Big Love” airs Sundays on HBO at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***

‘Californication’

Hollywood writer Hank Moody (David Duchovny) awakens from his overdose this week only to find that suicide, at least on “Californication,” can be good for a relationship. But fans of this dark, angst-ridden comedy take heart: the good times don’t last long.

Two episodes into the series’ fourth season, “Californication” is already besting the so-so Season Three. Facing criminal charges and familial estrangement after his tryst with an underage girl (think Nabokov, not Polanski), Hank enters another sort of hell as his best-selling novel is made into a movie.

As smart about Hollywood as Showtime’s “Episodes” is not, “Californication” has great fun in upcoming episodes with Carla Gugino as Hank’s lawyer, Rob Lowe as an egotistical Brad Pitt-like movie star and Fisher Stevens as a supremely twisted financier.

“Californication” airs Sundays on Showtime at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***1/2


What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
(No stars)    Worthless

Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Greg Evans at gregeaevans@yahoo.com.

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