Here at the Bureau for Solving Problems That May or May Not Be Problems, we have been on high alert recently because of the launch of yet another installment of perhaps the most vile series on television, “Spartacus."
Our worry is not simply that a fresh batch of graphic limb severings and gratuitous breast barings has been unleashed on the television landscape; such stuff will always be with us. No, our concern is, as always, for the children. Specifically for those children who might accidentally stumble on the decidedly adults-only “Spartacus" while searching for the kid-friendly Sportacus.
Sportacus is a somewhat embarrassing but heroic character on “LazyTown," a show now in perpetual reruns on PBS Kids Sprout and elsewhere, and aimed at preschoolers. “Spartacus" is, of course, the gladiator-themed series that returned to Starz on Friday night with a new season subtitled “War of the Damned."
We here at the bureau are afraid that a toddler with a voice-activated remote control and poor diction who is looking to spend some time with Sportacus might end up instead in the “Spartacus" version of ancient Rome, where the language is vulgar, and the bloodshed and copulation are copious. This would be an unfortunate mistake, because while Sportacus encourages fitness and healthy eating, “Spartacus" takes aim at pretty much every base instinct human beings have. The first eight minutes of the “War of the Damned" premiere covered bloodlust, carnal indulgence, vulgarity and don’t-try-this-at-home swordplay, not to mention laughably inept special effects.
Most parents, we at the bureau know, are too busy to monitor their children’s television viewing every second of the day and often can’t distinguish appropriate shows from inappropriate ones, even when they are paying attention. So we’ve prepared this guide to help concerned moms and dads determine whether their preschoolers are watching Sportacus or “Spartacus." Clip and save:
If the dominant wardrobe colors are brown and gray, and the men are costumed in something that resembles an adult diaper, your child is watching “Spartacus." Sportacus and the other LazyTowners generally go for a sleek look in primary colors, but Spartacus and his warriors prefer dingy, minimalist garb, a sort of ancient metal-and-leather Depend whose main benefit is to leave a maximum amount of torso for well-oiled display. The women lean toward flimsy garments that fall to the floor at the slightest provocation. Modesty, it appears, was not a significant part of ancient Roman culture.
If men twirl rather than flip, your child is watching “Spartacus." The preferred acrobatic move in Spartacus’ Rome is the no-look decapitation, accomplished in battle by twirling with sword extended in such a way as to remove the head of whoever is standing behind you. Sportacus is also gymnastically inclined but favors handsprings and front flips and rarely decapitates anyone. But it should be noted that he does occasionally speak sternly to Robbie Rotten, the anti-exercise, pro-candy villain of LazyTown.
If the bleeding in the show is always in slow motion, your child is watching “Spartacus." This season Spartacus is leading a rebellion against Rome, and it begins with a vast battle that shows off this series’ best skill, such as it is: capturing blood as it spurts, splatters and sprays in super-slow motion. A character can’t get a paper cut in this series without causing the camera crew to go berserk over the dubious beauty of hemorrhaging, lovingly rendering it in the way a nature cinematographer might show an erupting geyser. This is usually followed by a slow pan of the twitching, dying victims and their lopped extremities and detached entrails, cheesy-looking scenes that appear concocted from a community-theater prop closet.
In “LazyTown," in contrast, residents rarely bleed, though Sportacus and Robbie Rotten did once have a Wild-West-style duel in which Sportacus knocked Robbie’s cowboy hat off with an apple.
If characters are alternately speaking in pseudo-Shakespearean gibberish and emitting ferocious GRAWWWWWs, your child is watching “Spartacus." Sportacus, who is portrayed by an Icelandic fellow named Magnus Scheving, speaks in straightforward if slightly accented English.
Over on “Spartacus," the writers try to give their noxious show a veneer of sophistication by having everyone converse in flowery prose that aims to suggest Shakespeare, a device that also serves to hide the absence of any real plot beyond fighting and fornicating. Their favorite dialogue crutch, though, isn’t a word at all; it’s a lusty, roaring growl, which men emit when killing someone, being killed, celebrating a killing, being tortured, devouring a meal or just when they want to express their manliness.
“My incredible macho buffness is beyond human speech," these roar-growls seem to say. Either that or: “Who are we kidding? No one is watching this moronic show for the dialogue, so let’s just growl."
Other telltale signs that your child has tuned in “Spartacus" rather than Sportacus include the eating of barely cooked meat (Sportacus advocates fruits and vegetables); rampant misogyny (on “Spartacus," putting a woman to death by nailing her to a cross isn’t enough; she has to be slugged, too); and scenes that mix sex and bloodshed (because sophisticated viewers demand that images of naked bath attendants be intercut with shots of a warrior plunging a sword into another man’s mouth). Sheesh. Even Robbie Rotten would be appalled.