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Spartacus: Gladiator War

National Geographic Channel Monday, April 10 (9 p.m. ET/PT)

National Geographic Channel’s Spartacus: Gladiator War belongs to the truth-behind-the-legend school, which aims to debunk or at least flesh out the Hollywood version of a legendary figure’s life, but isn’t above relying on some blood-and-guts storytelling to attract eyeballs.

When, in 73 B.C. Italy, a gang of slaves break out of prison, they draft one of their own, soldier-turned-prisoner-turned-rebel Spartacus, as their leader. In a year’s time, the ragtag group had become an army 100,000 strong, and its leader threatened to bring down the Roman empire.

Heavy-handed in its reliance on staged combat sequences, often in slow-motion, Spartacus should draw a respectable audience of Roman history buffs but will lose viewers tuning in for imperial production values. But the hour manages to shed some light (not to mention blood) in telling its when-bad-things-happen-to-good-gladiators story.

The Great Quake

National Geographic Channel Sunday, April 16 (8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT)

The Great Quake is Nat Geo’s latest fear-TV foray. Last August, the special Inside 9/11 scored unprecedented ratings for the network. Although the subject here is a natural disaster — the massive 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco — Quake’s vivid account of death and destruction on American soil will certainly conjure up post-9/11 fears. “If terrorism is an if,” says author James Dalessandro in the special, “earthquakes are a when.”

Quake benefits immensely from actual photographs from the period, as well as from re-enacted real-life accounts of people who lived through the disaster. Production values are impressive in the dramatic sequences, which are well integrated with the narration. While the special’s bottom line is almost too chilling to fathom — that a seismic repeat is inevitable — it’s also the sort of message that will draw and hold viewers accustomed to living with — and tuning in to — fear.

Protocols of ZION

Cinemax Tuesday, April 11 (7 p.m. ET)

Protocols of Zion is a sobering HBO/Cinemax documentary born from a conversation that filmmaker Marc Levin had with a New York cab driver. The cabbie cited a 100-year-old piece of propaganda from Czarist Russia as evidence that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were part of a Jewish plot to rule the world. Protocols follows Levin as he confronts anti-semitism and intolerance from white supremacist America to the streets of Manhattan. The film meanders and some of the confrontational exchanges aren’t particularly enlightening. But Protocols is simply too relevant to ignore, and should satisfy fans of Cinemax’s independent documentaries.