The Weekend Playlist: Spurt-acus Returns, a Pivotal Downton, the SAG Awards

TV Guide
Liam McIntyre | Photo Credits: Starz

Here's blood in your eye. And your hair, chest, ears, anywhere and everywhere it might pool. Gird your loins to make way for TV's most relentless avenging gladiator/terminator in Starz' Spartacus: War of the Damned (Friday, 9/8c), kicking off the final season of the premium channel's signature series of lust and bloodlust.

This is a guilty pleasure of warrior bravado and gender-bending machismo, where honor comes to those (including men and women of all sexual orientations) who wield the mightiest sword with the greatest zeal to mutilate, amputate and when possible decapitate as many ignoble Romans as possible. Spartacus opens with roars of gory glory as the slave-revolt leader (Liam McEntire, radiating magnetism and earnest purpose) takes on and takes down what seems an entire legion of Roman soldiers. The savagery is as impressive as the many baroque ways these well-toned brutes find to impale and hack their way into history.

Making things more intriguing this time, Spartacus' main adversary as the series builds toward its final showdown isn't the usual sniveling, craven, oversexed patsy. The aristocrat Marcus Crassus (a fine Simon Merrells) may have wealth and slaves, but like the humble-of-soul Spartacus, he sees arrogance as a weakness and refuses to be regarded as a superior being, let alone a mortal god. "A man's true enemy is doubt," Crassus teaches his spoiled son as the nobleman spars mercilessly against a veteran of the arena.

We won't meet Julius Caesar until later, but Crassus makes a strong first impression as a cunning, classy new rival. It's not as if Spartacus doesn't already have a mighty burden, trying to keep discipline and order among his rowdy, randy renegades and facing a winter of privation and starvation. No one said becoming a legend would be easy.

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A more modern form of gladiatorial havoc visits Cinemax's bare-knuckled noir Banshee (Friday, 10/9c) when villainous Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen) brings a Mixed Martial Arts-style celebrity skull-crusher to joust at the run-down local Indian casino. It's hardly a surprise when this thug-for-profit crosses the line and gets under the skin of faux Sheriff Lucas Hood (Antony Starr), who's already suffering PTSD flashbacks from his prison trauma while rivaling Arrow in his buff workout ritual. Hood upholds the law like the criminal he really is, which is no way to stay incognito, not even in a backwater like Banshee.

Need a break from mayhem, if not emotional trauma? PBS' Downton Abbey (Sunday, check listings) is the weekend's must-see attraction, with an eventful episode that everyone will be talking about afterward. While the devious servant O'Brien begins laying a trap for her below-stairs nemesis Thomas, an elaborate scheme that involves the fetching but unwitting new footman Jimmy, the titled Crawleys anticipate the birth of Lady Sybil's baby, causing Matthew to fret about his own post-war fertility. "There's nothing more tiring than waiting for something to happen," laments Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), who by episode's end gets her wish and then some.

THE FRIDAY GUIDE: On The CW's Nikita (8/7c), would someone give poor Michael (Shane West) a hand? Seriously. Under such trying circumstances, no wonder the maimed agent is having a hard time keeping his cool watching his beloved Nikita (Maggie Q) working a mission with Owen (Devon Sawa). ... Need that Fringe fix on Fridays? The Science Channel has moved its binge-enabling run of repeats to Fridays with a three-hour block (8/7c) that this week bridges the end of the second season with the start of the third. ... All the world's a stage on PBS, which begins an enthralling and informative series taking us deep inside the Bard's masterworks with Shakespeare Uncovered (check listings). In the first back-to-back episodes, an intense Ethan Hawke investigates the roots of the dark classic Macbeth, followed by Joely Richardson exploring the enduring appeal and splendid female characters in the comedies As You Like It and Twelfth Night. She gets an assist from her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, whose performance as Rosalind in As You Like It on the London stage is the stuff of theatrical legend.

THE SATURDAY GUIDE: Maroon 5's Adam Levine, whose fame skyrocketed as a popular coach on The Voice, hosts NBC's Saturday Night Live (11:30/10:30c), with hip-hop's Kendrick Lamar as musical guest. ... BBC America's evocative Ripper Street (9/8c) takes on a Dickensian feel, with orphans and criminal child gangs factoring into the case of a murdered toy maker, which pits the police against a vigilante mob all too ready to hang the stubbornly silent boy being accused of the crime. ... Cable's frenzy for cloning has gone overboard with pawnshop knockoffs, the latest being CMT's Swamp Pawn (10/9c), set in a Bayou Pigeon, Louisiana, establishment where seafood is part of the consumer bait. ... Saturday night at the TV-movies: Luke Perry reprises his role of Wild West circuit judge John Goodnight in Hallmark Channel's latest Goodnight for Justice movie. In Queen of Hearts (8/7c), he rescues a woman from a stagecoach attack, unaware she's a con-artist on the lam. And Syfy gets seasonal with Abominable Snowman, starring Adrian Paul in the cheese-tastic story of skiers and snowboarders clashing with a man-eating Bigfoot.

THE SUNDAY GUIDE: The Oscars are a month away, and handicappers may be paying special attention to who wins the Screen Actors Guild Awards, simulcast on TBS and TNT (8/7c), which also honors TV drama and comedy stars. Will Homeland continue its sweep of the major drama prizes, and can anything topple Modern Family? (HBO's Girls, which did well at the Golden Globes, isn't even nominated.) The show's highlight: Dick Van Dyke's career achievement award, presented by The Dick Van Dyke Show creator Carl Reiner and multiple SAG winner Alec Baldwin. ... From the seeing-is-believing department: Discovery's Curiosity (8/7c) teams with NHK to reveal for the first time on camera one of the planet's more elusive sea creatures, the giant squid, in Monster Squid: The Giant Is Real (8/7c). ... As part of the countdown to the Doctor's 50th anniversary later this year, BBC America offers Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited (9/8c), a monthly special delving into the show's storied history. Guests in the opener include producer Steven Moffat, former Doctor David Tennant and Torchwood's John Barrowman. It's followed by a Doctor Who classic, "The Aztecs," starring first Doctor William Hartnell. ... ABC's Hallmark Hall of Fame goes the rom-com route with a cute (possibly too cute) gender-reversed version of Pygmalion, or My Fair Laddie, with The Makeover (9/8c), starring Julia Stiles as the uptight Hannah (not Henry) Higgins, who's such a stickler for proper speech it cost her a congressional election. So with the help of her Pickering (Camryn Manheim, looking terrific), she transforms Elliot Doolittle, a thick-tongued South Boston beer vendor (charming David Walton, who's recently been romancing Jess on New Girl), to be her surrogate. But does the rain in Maine stay mainly in the plain? ... A week before the Super Bowl, NBC broadcasts the NFL Pro Bowl (7/6c), which if tradition holds will draw the night's biggest crowd, but Fox is all new with its Animation Domination, and CBS carries on with The Good Wife (9/8c), in which Alicia is tempted with a new career path while the firm confronts its creditors, and The Mentalist (10/9c), where Lisbon mulls her own future as the CBI looks into a cold case that could shed light on Red John and the Visualize cult.

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