September 21, 2005

When in Rome…

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Before I start to write this column about a little show on HBO called Rome, I’m going to preface it by giving you some context. In a nutshell? This isn’t your mother’s Rome. Imagine if while accompanying Mark Antony (James Purefoy, in another clunky headgear-wearing role), the newly appointed People’s Tribune, on his way to Rome, Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), soldier extraordinaire decided to cheerfully communicate his excitement for the capital by proclaiming, “I’m gonna drink every drink, smoke every smoke, and fuck every whore in the city!” And imagine that this charming scene is supplemented by what appears to be People’s Tribune, Mark Antony, copulating with an anonymous shepardess against a tree trunk in the camera’s peripheral vision. And finally, add in an entire regiment of Caesar’s (Ciaran Hinds) famed legion, momentary halted in their march due to Antony’s foliage fixation.

Well, you don’t have to imagine because that was actually the second episode of Rome, adeptly titled, “How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic.” Just recently renewed for a second season, Rome marks the first co-production effort from HBO and BBC. The two networks had previously collaborated on Band of Brothers, and let me just say that besides both being money-sucking black holes in the budget department, the two series have nothing in common. Unlike the obligatory acknowledgement of how great Band of Brothers was due to its having followed the tried and true formula of emotion-heavy war drama flavored by bonding of the masculine sort, my stamp of approval for Rome came voluntarily and with no effort at all.

The show’s synopsis is actually far from simple and seems to hint at the existence of political intrigue, especially when you consider Caesar’s femme fatale niece Atia (Polly Walker looking very Julie Cooper-esque) and annoyingly precocious grand-nephew Octavian (Max Pirkis). Basically, the Roman senate is getting antsy with all the positive publicity that Caesar’s been getting by conquering Gaul and being friendly with the plebeians. Add into the mix, Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham), Caesar’s one-time mentor, friend and brother-in-law but presently, Caesar’s arch nemesis. The storyline is rounded out with two “everyman” stories in the form of the aforementioned Titus Pullo and fellow soldier, Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd). Oh yeah and don’t forget that dastardly charming Mark Antony.

If it all seems just a bit too familiar, you’re probably still suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome of the Empire variety. Having premiered earlier in the summer, Empire had been ABC’s contribution to the blood-and-sandal-epic genre. Due to certain uncontrollable forces, namely the FCC, Empire can at most only count as a meager appetizer to prep audiences for the shameless ostentation of Rome.

HBO’s Rome is less unflattering togas and lending of ears and more – hey wouldn’t it be cool if we saw frame by frame how to extract shards from a patient’s skull and nail a metal plate to their head with only the crudest of instruments?

The publicity for Rome is a plethora of praise on authentic costumes and elaborate sets but what does give the show its extra oomph? It’s definitely not the writing, if Titus Pollo’s lines are any indication. Rome is, and this may sound somewhat corny even for me, carried on the shoulders of its amazing cast. Hinds’ stoic, more patrician-than-thou gaze alone is worth more than an entire page of meaningful character interaction. Meanwhile, Walker’s Atia is, perhaps, the most cunning political player of all as well as completely without shame. “Well, come in. Don’t be such a goose!” she scolds her son, as he peers with uncertainty from behind a curtain. Considering the fact that she, herself, happens to be entirely naked and in the process of bathing, I would say that Octavian’s shyness was not unfounded.

Raunchy, bawdy, an uproarious good time. These are all attributes that I could bestow on Rome, but upon greater reflection, the most prevalent characteristic of HBO’s newest attempt at alleviating some of that Sopranos anxiety would have to be nudity. If that’s not a reason to watch, I don’t know what is.

Archived article by Tracy Zhang
Arts and Entertainment Editor