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.Powered by Sidelines