It's been almost two years since the first season of Starz's "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" ended its run, and in that intervening time a prequel, "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena," aired and the show's title-character star, Andy Whitfield, was diagnosed with and died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
It has not been an easy road for this series that seems to begin each season wobbly before later coming to fuller life as an engrossing, character-driven soap for viewers raised on WWE shows. "Spartacus: Vengeance" may follow a similar path. It premieres Friday, Jan. 27, at 10 p.m. EST.
New series star Liam McIntyre capably steps into the title role. He's less beefy than Whitfield, but his facial resemblance to his predecessor is uncanny. Getting beyond the recasting shouldn't be too difficult for most viewers; not that the show ignores Whitfield's passing: He's remembered in a card at the end of the episode as "a champion on screen, a legend in our hearts."
Remembering where the "Spartacus" story left off is a greater challenge complicated by new characters that appear at Spartacus' side but aren't introduced in a way that lets the audience know who they are or how they got there. This season could be called "Spartacus: Who the Hell Are These People?"
As it begins, Spartacus is leading a slave rebellion that's terrorizing Capua. Last season he killed Batiatus -- and gravely wounded Batiatus' wife, Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) -- but Spartacus is still seeking vengeance on those involved in putting his now-dead wife in harm's way. Spartacus also supports Crixus (Manu Bennett) in his effort to retrieve Crixus' love interest, Naevia (newcomer Cynthia Addai-Robinson takes over the role from actress Lesley-Ann Brandt in another bit of recasting).
When not bedding Mira (Katrina Law), Spartacus tries to aid Aurelia, the wife of his friend Varro, who died in season one. Aurelia wants to be reunited with her son.
But viewers have to pay close attention to remember who all these characters are and how they fit together. The season premiere doesn't offer much help, beginning with an extremely limited "previously on ..." recap and few reminders in the script by series creator Steven S. DeKnight.
Keeping track of Spartacus' Roman enemies and their relationships also proves a challenge. While blond, scheming Ilithyia (Viva Bianca) is tough to forget, it takes some time to piece together that it was her husband, Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker), who sold Spartacus to Batiatus at the start of the series. Now Glaber catches hell for the massacre that Sparty and friends perpetrated in the House of Batiatus.
New Romans introduced include young Seppius (Tom Hobbs), who joins the hunt for Spartacus when he's not stealing possibly untoward glances at his sister, Seppia (Hanna Mangan Lawrence).
Although Friday's season premiere is a bit confusing at times, the "Spartacus" world comes into better focus in episode two, which brings back former gladiator trainer Oenomaus (Peter Mensah), formerly known as Doctore.
And, of course, it wouldn't be "Spartacus" without elaborate, bloody fight sequences. True to form, often the blood is cartoonish -- at least twice in Friday's episode it washes over the whole screen like spilled red Kool-Aid -- and sometimes the wounds are grisly and gory. The show keeps you on your toes; you never know if a fight scene will end in viewer laughter at splashy, unreal excess or a squeamish rush to hide your eyes.
Full-frontal nudity remains extensive, whether it's a flashback to scenes from season one or a new visit to a brothel that Spartacus and his men tear up, disemboweling naked, stunned Romans and terrifying chained-up prostitutes.
As in season one and the prequel, "Spartacus" does not put its best foot forward in its first hour. But just as those two prior seasons showed marked improvement as the storytelling became more sure-handed, there's reason to be optimistic that the same will be true for "Spartacus: Vengeance."