Implementing the tools he learned from some of television's most innovative series, Steven S. DeKnight waged a campaign of shock and awe. As the series creator of Spartacus, DeKnight played a key role in ushering a bold, new phase for the television drama. In this third part of a special Personalities Interviews series, step into the Examiner arena with the man behind the return of TV's guiltiest pleasure, Spartacus: Vengeance.
It is hard to avoid the parallels between the savage Roman gladiator bouts seen on the hit show Spartacus and the complicated reality of launching a new television series in the 21st century. Both are the ultimate spectator sport, where champions are revered and the losers carried out in pieces from the arena.
Feeding an increasingly fickle crowd is a daunting task for any show runner, but veteran director/writer/producer Steven S. DeKnight has been quite adept at taming this vociferous beat. With a track record that includes such influential series as Angel, Smallville and Joss Whedon’s legendary Buffy the Vampire Slayer, taking on the swords and sandals genre would seem an odd fit. "Not so," says DeKnight.
"I was actually working with Joss Whedon on Dollhouse when I got the call from my agent," he explained. "'Starz and Sam Raimi want to do a gladiator show. Are you interested?'" I'm a huge Sam Raimi fan, so I was like, "’I'm going in!’"
After their initial meeting, scheduling conflicts seemed to make this collaboration a short one. Yet, fortune indeed favors the few. DeKnight remained standing after an intense search by the Starz and Spartacus teams for the right show runner. Once approached with the offer, he simply wrapped up work on a Dollhouse episode on a Friday, heading straight into Spartacus on a Monday. His agenda? Not to recreate some sort of history lesson.
“They sold it as, ‘Let's do Spartacus like 300 and make it sexy and visceral,’" DeKnight continued. “That's about all we had at that point. I went in and started figuring out the story. I was shocked to find out that there's so little known about Spartacus. Just bits and pieces. That entire first season is literally about three paragraphs of history."
Filling in the gaps of the rise of Spartacus was exactly the challenge DeKnight sought at this juncture of his career. Without the limits of network censors, his vision of ancient Rome would be as no-holds barred as history has documented. Libidinous, brutal, decadent and rife with tales of heroism, Spartacus: Blood and Sand would fearlessly take audiences into the heart of the period. It would be first and foremost an action-adventure. However, its brave take on human drama is what has turned it into another rare genre hybrid: the guilty pleasure that has an emotional resonance.