Spartacus is back with a new Spartacus. Both the new actor and the revamped series take some getting used to. For the most part, the reincarnation works, in large part because this cable franchise doesn’t have a pedigree to sully. The latest edition, Spartacus: Vengeance, picks up where the original 2010 hit Spartacus: Blood and Sand left off, with the title character and his lusty band of former slaves afflicting their former Roman masters, and the Romans trying to contain the rebellion. Liam McIntyre takes over the title role, replacing Andy Whitfield, who died of cancer last year. Whitfield, whose sinewy torso and sweaty earnestness helped turn the original series into Starz’s biggest ratings hit, was diagnosed with early-stage non-Hodgkin lymphoma after the first season wrapped. Starz delayed the second season to accommodate his treatment, then plugged the long hiatus with the six-episode prequel Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, which was pretty good for a period piece thrown together in a hurry. Production of the mothership show was supposed to resume after Whitfield was declared cancer-free, but the actor relapsed and died September 11 of last year. Starz approached McIntyre as a contingency; McIntyre says he had some contact with Whitfield near the end, though they never actually met, and took over with Whitfield’s blessing.
This would be a tough situation for any performer, and I’m sure some fans will feel that the show can’t or shouldn’t continue with a different star no matter who he is. But I like McIntyre. He doesn’t have Whitfield’s odd sweetness and Joseph Gordon-Levitt eyes, and he has a somewhat more square, old-movie presence (except for the fussed-over eyebrows), but he’s a good actor, and his Tom Cruise–like relentlessness suits the story.
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A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play.