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TV Review: Rome

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Rome is something of a disappointment. Despite months of hype and its thoroughbred bloodline of previous HBO dramas, it turns out to be nothing all that special. I know some folks who swear by it, but they are mostly history geeks who eat up pretty much any historical drama that follows the known events reasonably well. I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of Rome, and I don’t really care about it. What I do care about is that it is dramatically limp and I fear it may be symbolic of the decline of HBO original programming.

The fundamental problem is one of characterization. With a couple of notable exceptions that I will get to later, none of these Romans are all that interesting. The show covers one of the most storied eras in human history; events and personalities that have compelled works by the likes of Shakespeare and Shaw; events that could even be portrayed as having a particularly poignant bearing on the current world, yet in the midst of all this dramatic opportunity we get only two dimensions of these people.

We get a Caesar who is authoritarian above all else. Antony is barely more than an arrogant bully. Cicero is a cowardly schemer. Pompey is a hopeful fool. Cato is a passionate crank. Cleopatra is a drug addled brat. The women are devious scheming cats or mere devices for sex scenes. While all these things are valid as character sketches, we get no depth; none of the shades of gray that let you sympathize with characters and identify with their conflicts. The dialog and direction are straight out of any garden variety TV drama playbook.

Oh, and while I’m at it, someone needs to tell HBO that gratuitous lesbian sex scenes and full frontal male nudity are no longer particularly noteworthy. In fact, they’ve become somewhat precious. It’s not the ’90s anymore; you don’t get points for that. While it’s all well and good for ogling, it really doesn’t bring anything to the table in terms of dramatic quality, now does it?

The net result of all this is to turn one of the most profound and legendary points in history into the rough equivalent of an episode of Dynasty.

The redemption from banality, and far and away the most compelling aspect of Rome, comes from the completely fictional characters of Prefect Lucius Vorenus and Legionnaire Titus Pullo, the Felix and Oscar of the Thirteenth Legion. It was a sharp move to transplant a couple of buddy cops into the stuffy, prescribed Caesarian narrative. With them comes a vibrancy and good humor that is lacking in the remainder of the show. These guys have some serious chemistry.

But the real masterstroke was weaving these two into the momentous events of history. Pullo’s barroom brawl leads to the downfall of the Republic. Vorenus’ sense of loyalty and mercy get Pompey Magnus killed. And in the latest, Pullo may just turn out to be the biological father of Caesar’s male heir. Somewhere, a writer’s tongue is about to burst through his cheek.

Rome does little to enhance HBO’s reputation for drama. For that, we’re going to have to wait for new seasons of The Wire and Deadwood and hope The Sopranos picks itself up off the mat. Until then, Rome is at least entertaining, and worth watching to see the course of civilization inadvertently defined by Starsky and Hutch.

For a much better take on these events I can’t recommend the movie version of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra highly enough. Claude Rains is excellent as a world weary Caesar trying to keep a grip on Rome while being distracted by Vivian Leigh’s bratty teen Cleopatra. About the perfect balance of humor, weight, and history; all coupled with Shaw’s beautiful dialog. Still the best film version of Caesar’s legend even 60 years after its release.

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About David Mazzotta

  • Erik

    I disagree.

    “mostly history geeks”, I believe this is an unfair and unimaginative characterization.

    Characters have been dead on and interesting in my opinion. Most Romans were Stoics.

    If you were a “history geek” you’d be aware that sexuality was much less constrained in those time. Is HBO exploiting this, yes, but they are also trying to introduce some of the Roman outlook and culture.

    Speaking of gratuituos, DeadWood? Maybe they aren’t saying “cocksucker” enough on Rome for your taste.

    Look, believe it or not, you can not like something and it can be good all at the same time. I always hated 6 feet under and Nip Tuck but I knew they were good, just not my kind of good. Maybe the world doesn’t revolve around you and your tastes.

  • RomeFan

    “The redemption from banality, and far and away the most compelling aspect of Rome, comes from the completely fictional characters of Prefect Lucius Vorenus and Legionnaire Titus Pullo, the Felix and Oscar of the Thirteenth Legion.”

    Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo were both actual men in the 9th legion I believe not the 13th and the only two legionnaires ever mentioned by name in the writings of Caesar.

  • http://damsite.blogspot.com David Mazzotta

    Well, I’ll be damned.

    According to AncientWorlds.net (http://www.ancientworlds.net/aw/Article/647100), they were in the 3rd legion. I wonder why they changed it to the 13th.

    Great description of the duo from Caesar:
    “…fortune dealt with each one of them in their controversy and competition, that each adversary would help and save the other and that it could not be decided, which one of them seemed to outdo the other in bravery.”

    Thanks, RomeFan.

  • Katherine

    No, David, I’m pretty sure the world does, in fact, revolve around your taste. Could you please do something about that pesky Bird Flu?

    Ok – so kidding aside – Erik needs to read the line in bold “Personal attacks are NOT allowed.” Amazing how people can personalize stuff if your assessment doesn’t match theirs.

  • Just browsing

    It’s very amateurish to commit something to print before researching it.

    Though I will say it was very difficult to weed through google’s hits before confirming their existence.

  • David Mazzotta

    Did you ever notice how every publication in existance runs corrections virtually every day?

    Bloody amatuers, the lot of ‘em.

  • David Mazzotta

    Some of them even have spelling errors.

  • Usipter

    While one such as myself may appreciate the leveity of whimsical critique, I often wonder if if perhaps we speak only to be heard; rather than to grant true insight. Wouldn’t you agree David, that we sometimes lack the true genius to see and understand? And perhaps to even allow ourselves, the somewhat tiresome, yet neccessary drill, of looking back to our past, even if it be shrouded in drapes of the truest silk? It’s true. Then we may even gorge until we forget to appreciate that which is right about what we indulge in. As for fiction, fathers and friends and lovers & lies are all believed depictions in our everyday lifes. But we must be ever vigilant, for the imperfections of the eyes grow with age, and the fires of the heart cool with time.

    I must say though, bravo to HBO, & Bruno Heller, for far too long have shows been simple shows.
    It is for the higher intellects though, I would concur with that…

    And I give ROME a 9.
    Ado.

  • son of an Atia

    Rome was by far one of the best television dramas period. Too bad it was so expensive.. Polly Walker and James Purefoy deserve emmys for their exceptional acting on this show.

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