Saturday, January 17, 2009

HBO's ROME (2005-2007)

HBO has gotten a tremendous amount of critical praise in recent years for several of their productions and while it's true they've sometimes done some of the best work on television, it's often the case that this hype turns out to be a lot of hooey--mediocre and even poor product elevated beyond any reasonable estimation of its merits. One project showered with this sort of profuse praise that actually lived up to--and exceeded--its hype is ROME, a massive two-season, 22 chapter epic set in the last days of the Roman Republic.

We've seen a lot of Roman epics over the years, of every conceivable degree of quality (mostly bad, though), but there's never been a project like ROME. HBO, co-producing with the BBC, gave the series the red-carpet treatment, shooting in 35mm film in Rome itself, devoting five acres of the Cinecittà backlot to recreating sections of the city and spending something in the neighborhood of $200 million for the entire run. The amount of attention given to every detail of the physical production is almost absurd--you can see it in every shot.

So it looks pretty but how is it?

Excellent. As a drama, ROME would still rank among the best we've gotten from television if it was staged on cardboard sets with wooden swords. The series covers about 20 years of history, from Julius Caesar's victory in Gaul to the ascendancy of Augustus. We follow events through parallel storylines involving, on the one hand, the major players (Caesar, Mark Antony, Brutus, etc.) and on the other, a pair of regular Roman plebs and their families and associates.

The latter, Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), are legionaries serving in Gaul as the story opens. Though their names are drawn from actual soldiers mentioned in Caesar's commentary on the campaign in Gaul, the characters are entirely fictional and owe much more of their substance to buddy comedies and action movies than to Caesar. Besides being a damn good drama, ROME serves as an almost anthropological examination of life in ancient Rome and Vorenus and Pullo serve as our eyes into that society. We're given story arcs related to their military service, their efforts at returning to civilian life and taking up regular trades and they even put in a long stint as officially sanctioned gangsters. McKidd, Stevenson and pretty much everyone else in the cast are uniformly excellent. Bruno Heller, who is really the creative force behind the show, is quite clever in finding ways in which to work these characters into the major historical events covered in the series.

We're given a rip-roaring, first-rate take on those more familiar events as well--Caesar's victory in Gaul, his conflict with Pompey, his rise to dictator and eventual death and the power-struggle between Antony and Octavian that followed. There's much behind-the-scenes political maneuvering by everyone involved. The series offers an almost entirely fictionalized version of Octavian's mother Atia as a wonderfully devilish schemer, brought to life with much enthusiasm by Polly Walker. One ongoing storyline deals with Atia's battle with Caesar's lover Servilia (Lindsay Duncan, bringing to life an equally fictionalized version of a real historical figure). It culminates, late in the run, in extremely dramatic fashion, capped by the funniest line of the series (watch it--you'll see what I mean). Bringing to life the major players is another excellent cast. James Purefoy in particular gives us the screen version of the Mark Antony those of us with an interest in this history have always imagined.

The series isn't without flaws but most of them are very minor. Its conclusion, I'll concede, isn't very good--probably the series' weakest point. There have been some quibbles among commentators on the show about historical accuracy. These seem grossly misplaced to me. Jonathan Stamp, the series' historical consultant, has said ROME aims for authenticity, not necessarily painstaking historical accuracy, and the most brutal of scoffers on this point would be hard pressed to deny that the show has authenticity in spades but it's also pretty good history. Corners are sometimes cut, events are somewhat altered at times, a lot of the show deals with fictional characters (or fictionalized versions of real ones) but it still manages to hit pretty close to the mark when it comes to the broad historical record and by the usual standard of such projects (see, most recently, GLADIATOR), it may as well be a history textbook.

Well-written, thoughtful, violent, funny, moving, meticulously staged and with more layers than could be fully absorbed in half a dozen viewings, ROME is a first-rate production all the way--worthy of every rave it drew. This is probably the closest anyone can ever hope to get to being in pagan Rome and it plays out well enough that we may experience some little feeling of regret at that fact.

Both seasons of ROME are available on DVD but unfortunately, HBO continues their practice of confusing their wares with those of the Criterion Collection when it comes to pricing. The DVD releases are as good as the series, and packed to the gills with excellent extras but upon their initial release, they were insanely overpriced--many times anything reasonable and far more than I'm willing to pay. They've come down quite a bit but contemplating the current $80+ price-tag for a 22-episode series, I can't help but reflect on the irony of the fact that, in this age when we hear so much of piracy, the talk is always centered around some teenagers downloading files on their computers. I ended up purchasing my copies of ROME used, at a fraction of what they cost new, which is probably the best way to go. Or just rent them. But see them.


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