Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Rome - Season 1 (2005)
Rome - Season 1 (2005)
HBO has a reputation for making some terrific original dramas - 'Band of Brothers', 'Carnivale' and 'Deadwood' were great, and I've heard good things about 'The Wire', 'The Sopranos' (yeah, never seen it!), and 'Six Feet Under'. I therefore knew going in that 'Rome' was going to be at least as lavish and immaculately made as its HBO brethren, most likely more so given its massive budget (apparently one of the most expensive TV series ever made). I just didn't anticipate that I would get hooked as much as I did.
'Rome' is a historical drama about, surprise surprise, Rome circa the first century BC during the time when the Roman Empire was formed under Julius Caesar. For the most part it depicts the activities of major and minor historical figures including Caesar (Ciaran Hinds), Marc Antony (James Purefoy), Marcus Brutus (Tobias Menzies), Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham), Gaius Octavion (Max Pirkis), Atia of the Julii (Polly Walker), and Servilia of the Junii (Lindsay Duncan). The politics, relationships, family life, loves, affairs, plotting and scheming of these people are all depicted in dramatic and complex detail, all of it fitting in with the broader historical events taking place . The aforementioned people represent the ruling classes; the central characters of the show, however, are two common soldiers, Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), two essentially fictional characters who bind the events of the narrative together (in a somewhat contrived fashion, but the contrivance is sold fairly well). Through their eyes, and the eyes of Vorenus's wife Niobe (Indira Varma), the show depicts the life of the plebeians.
The show is excellent in all respects. I can't comment much on historical accuracy, but it jibes with what I know and it is apparently fairly accurate compared to other dramatizations of the era. What I can say with certainty is that it is immensely atmospheric and exhibits that trait that is so important in making a world immersive - verisimilitude. From the opulence and aloofness of the nobility in their fine houses to the dirty crime ridden streets and slums of Rome, the show feels real. The production values are simply excellent - detailed and grand sets and props and visual effects combine to sell the illusion that you are seeing ancient Rome. The plotting is complex, but the writing holds all of it together nicely and it never gets overly complicated. On the downside some things get skimmed over really fast, and some of the dialogue sounds more like narration as characters explicitly enunciate their political maneuvering, but I can excuse this as being a necessary compromise in the name of narrative expediency. Admittedly it does feel a bit soap operatic at times with some of the scheming that goes on, but given the context where the scheming usually involves someone getting eviscerated (not something you see everyday in a soap opera), I can live with that.
Being just 10 episodes long, the first season of 'Rome' crams quite a bit in. One thing it isn't is slow; there's always something going on, and with the number of characters and story threads it juggles it is relentlessly paced by necessity. It's a fairly grim affair overall, but it does have its share of caustic humour, and while mostly a drama there are some brutal action sequences thrown in now and then. As with much of HBO's oeuvre, characters are often foul mouthed and there's a lot of nudity and sex on display. It feels borderline gratuitous, but doesn't really seem out of place given the setting. The performances are mostly excellent across the board. Ciaran Hinds is terrific as Caesar, intelligent and commanding, while James Purefoy provides him the perfect foil as the less than virtuous Marc Antony. McKidd and Stevenson make for a fantastic pair - one noble and righteous and the other a lovable, violent lout - and make for strong central leads. Also terrific is Polly Walker as the cruel, scheming, lascivious Atia. The only person who was a bit of a let down was Tobias Menzies as Brutus; while not a bad actor by any means, he seemed less impressive and charismatic than I would have expected a man of his influence to be, and the friendship between Brutus and Caesar never felt believable as a result.
The show definitely has its flaws, as I have mentioned. But to me the sum of the parts is far greater than the whole, and I found this first season to be an addictive and thoroughly enjoyable experience. The writing is not as strong as in Deadwood, with the characters sometimes feeling like slaves to the machinations of the plot instead of genuine individuals, but I still found this to be more engaging (which is saying something, since I found Deadwood to be pretty darned engaging as well). I can imagine some people not being as taken by 'Rome' as I was, which is fair enough. I think it's very well made, but some of its problems will probably irk others more than they did me. As a final example, the music, which is of a style very typical for the genre and which I have grown tired of in recent times in many other period epics, I found to be very fitting for this show. If I had heard it on it's own though, I would have thought it sounded very generic! So in short, I recommend the show wholeheartedly but with the caveat that my final assessment is partial!