Steven S. DeKnight is a name familiar to Whedonverse fans, having produced and written some of the darkest episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. He’s also written episodes of Dollhouse and Smallville. But his real glory has been found in the arena, as the creator of Starz’s bloody fun series Spartacus.
Panned early on by critics as a gratuitous gore-fest, the fledgling series about the titular rebellious slave soon found its footing and has since become a pulp drama hit with a dedicated fanbase. After the first season, series star Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with non-Hodkins lymphoma and a prequel series, Gods of the Arena, was filmed. Sadly, Whitfield never fully recovered and passed away last year.
Now, the show returns for its second season proper — subtitled Vengeance — with newcomer Liam McIntyre cast in the role of Spartacus.
“What drew us to Liam is that we didn’t want to try to duplicate,” DeKnight says. “I mean, that will never happen. He was such a singular, amazing talent. But we wanted to find somebody that had the same base qualities of compassion. And I told all the actors when they auditioned that even though Spartacus may fly into a rage now and then, he never comes from a place of anger, it’s always from a place of a wounded heart. And we really felt like Liam captured that essence.”
While Spartacus is the heart of the show, there’s a rich cast of characters around him, including the lovestruck gladiator Crixus (Manu Bennett) and Oenomaus (300’s Peter Mensah.) Formerly the esteemed trainer of House Batiatus, Oenomaus takes a more central role this season as he struggles with his status as a fugitive.
Spartacus has a strong cast of female characters as love interests and scheming villains. Lucy Lawless, herself a genre veteran, plays Lucretia. Left for dead in last season’s finale, she returns quite changed by her near-death experience.
“Watching how Lucretia puts the pieces back together and tries to reclaim her life is really the juicy part of the storyline. And Lucy of course does it so brilliantly. I’ve been a big fan of hers, too, since the Xena days and am still thrilled and impossibly shocked that she’s one of the stars of our show.”
Another key female on the show is Mira, a love interest for Spartacus.
“Spartacus has always been a romance. I love a good romance. And I want this kind of sweeping Last of the Mohicans-style romance in it. So yes, this season is no different.“
There’s all kinds of pairings in the show; gay, straight, open marriages, and the kinds of naked acrobatics that can only be seen on cable. Sex draws just as much negative feedback as violence.
”One of the other things that I’m still to this day getting comments about is, and I put this in air quotes, all the ’gay shit’ in my show. And people asking me to tone it down, which I always say no... If people want to stop watching the show because two guys kiss, well, I shrug my shoulders... Thankfully STARZ is very supportive and we get to tell the story we want to tell.“
DeKnight has been vocal in his love of Conan author Robert E. Howard, a source he frequently cites as inspiration for the show. And while he feels critics are quick to dismiss Spartacus because of its sword-and-sandal genre and comic book-style visuals, he he’s in good company:
”Oh, absolutely people take it less seriously,“ he quickly responds. ”There have been some great, great genre shows on the air that got no love from the Academy. Battlestar Galactica comes to mind, Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes to mind. We’re kind of the redheaded stepchild. I think one of the most amazing accomplishments of J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof and Lost was winning that Emmy for a genre show.”
What does he love about telling genre stories?
“It really opens up the possibilities of what you can do. It’s a little more restrictive on Spartacus since despite all of its trappings, it’s not a fantasy show. We can’t bring in magic, there are no monsters, you know, everything has to have a real world logic to it. A bigger pulpy logic, but definitely a real world logic to it. It was much easier on Buffy when, you know, we needed to solve a problem and somebody had a mystical doodad that could help us out. That’s always a lot easier.
“But what I also love about genre is just the way you can really heighten emotions and use the situations as metaphors and just make it as powerful and emotional as possible.”
So what can viewers look forward to this season, as Spartacus leaves the ludus behind and sets his sights on Rome itself?
“This was always planned to be the season where Spartacus goes from a man really searching for his personal redemption in the death of his wife, and his feelings of responsibility for that, and transitioning him into a true leader. And it’s a very, very bumpy ride for him.
“I love to take to people on journeys. Crixus definitely goes on a journey. Even characters like Agron, which was one of the two brothers in season one that we didn’t get to know that well, has a major story. Everybody grows up in this season.”
Spartacus: Vengeance premieres Friday, January 27th at 10PM E/PT. Watch the first episode on Starz.com now.