What would we do without television? If we had lived in Roman times, we may very well have popped down to the amphitheatre to watch people fight each other, or ferocious beasts, to the death. Blood sports still exist, of course, but we can get our thrills in much less lethal ways these days; no gladiators (nor actors, we hope) were harmed during the filming of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.
Expanded from a single flashback in an episode of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, mini-series Gods of the Arena (Max; Fridays at 10pm) serves as an equally bloody prequel to the violent gladiator action-drama - focusing on the rise of the House of Batiatus in the ancient city of Capua. John Hannah (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Lucy Lawless (Xena: Warrior Princess) reprise their roles as Quintus Batiatus and wife Lucretia as they climb the slippery ladder of Roman society through the success of their gladiator ludus (camp). In this pre-Spartacus era, Batiatus' great- est champion is Gannicus (Dustin Clare; Underbelly), a Celt whose appetite for wine and women rivals his audacity and skill in the arena. We also learn more about Oenomaus (Peter Mensah; 300) - the formidable gladiator trainer who will put Spartacus through his paces in Blood and Sand - and the tragedy that befalls him even as he is appointed to the position of doctore of the ludus.
Gods of the Arena spans just six episodes, and the story benefits from the concision. We are given insight into Batiatus' ambition within the context of his desire to surpass his father's legacy; we see a younger, less sophisticated Lucretia receiving lessons in feminine wiles from her worldly, social-climbing friend Gaia (played by the deliciously devious Jaime Murray; Hustle). The fight sequences, though no less gory, seem to rely less on stylised CGI blood spatter and extreme camera angles. Thanks to better choreography and Clare's agility, the action looks more authentic and, therefore, more exciting.
Overall, this prequel has set the bar higher for the following season of Blood and Sand, currently in production. With Andy Whitfield battling lymphoma, Australian actor Liam McIntyre has taken over as Spartacus.
Back in the modern world, NCIS: Los Angeles (above; AXN, Tuesdays at 10.55pm) returns for a second season, featuring Chris O'Donnell (Batman & Robin) as agent G. Callen of the Office of Special Projects within the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and muscle-bound rapper LL Cool J as his partner.
To hammer home the nature of Callen's work, the first episode is a jumble of inter-agency triple-crossing while continuing the storyline concerning his identity issues; he is a former foster child haunted by the memory of absentee parents and a missing younger sister. According to the agency's psychologist, his murky past is what makes him such a good undercover agent, although from the convoluted writing around that arc, we can't really see how. No matter; our expectations for the show don't encompass plausible, realistic characters or plots - it's all about the chase scenes, explosions and muscle cars (there are plenty of each within the first 15 minutes alone). Academy Award winner Linda Hunt (The Year of Living Dangerously) continues to add her idiosyncratic touch, as office handler and former agent Hetty Lange, to the formu- laic, run-of-the-mill acting of others.
By coincidence, British drama Hustle (BBC Entertainment, Mondays at 9.55pm) opens its sixth season with a con involving an elaborate impersonation of Kylie Minogue, just as the real pop princess gears up for Friday's highly anticipated performance in Hong Kong. In the grand tradition of the series, the Hustle gang, led by 'inside man' Mickey Bricks, only cheats cheaters, lies to liars and hates haters. When Bricks cases a job, he looks for marks who are obviously unlikable, to ensure a con is never just about the money - and that we are always ready to root for him and his team. After the departure of Stacie Monroe (Murray; see above) and Billy Bond at the end of the fourth season, siblings Sean and Emma Kennedy were inducted as rooky grifters. After a year of heavy scrutiny from the rest of the team, they seem ready to pull their own weight this season.