Rome: One Day it Shall Fade and Crumble

Rome-HBO

With Spartacus now behind me, I confess to a palpable void that I have been desperate to fill. So I binge watched Rome on DVD. When one Googles rome vs spartacus TV, Rome is lauded and Spartacus summarily dismissed. Thus I approached the series with intrigue and embarrassment, as I have owned the first season of Rome on DVD for 5 years. Until a couple weeks ago, it remained another untouched blind buy from Costco. Rome is clearly regarded as exceptional viewing when you search the internet for info, making many top 10 lists of must see TV. So I began watching with mixed expectations (Could it live up to the hype? How can it possibly be better than Sparty?) and hoped it would be as moving as Spartacus. I do not want to start by declaring one show better than the other, as their aims are different and they both have their strengths and weaknesses.

Rome was a beautifully produced, adult oriented, well acted TV program. It centred on the political machinations of the entitled at the twilight of the Roman Republic as the dawn of the Roman Empire encroached. It had a large ensemble cast. The writers interwove different plots dealing primarily with Roman elites but had a few plebeians thrown in to ground the story.

Despite taking Latin for 3 years in high school, I am no lover of this classic period and can be categorically described as woefully ignorant about the history of the world. As an aside, Latin did come in handy many years later as I was studying/memorizing anatomy (flexor digitorus profundus, etc.). Because my interests still lie elsewhere, I cannot speak to authenticity of such things as costumes, hairstyles or set design. These all looked good to me. The cast was top-notch and included Ciaran Hinds (a personal favorite) as Julius Caesar and James Purefoy as Mark Antony. Nice surprises as well were Kevin McKidd as lowly soldier Lucius Vorenus (loved him in Trainspotting) in an odd couple pairing with Ray Stevenson (the best thing about the most recent season of Dexter that I never finished watching) as Titus Pullo. I liked Rome the TV series in so far as it encouraged me to learn more about this period in time and how it mirrored the current state of global politics. But I did not enjoy it enough to buy the second season; that, I borrowed.

The producers of Rome knew the story they wanted to tell and did so at quite a clip, spanning about a decade in 22 episodes. I believe this was a result of budgetary constraints as it was one of the most elaborate productions for HBO. I was thankful for that fact because if it had continued for more seasons, I would have abandoned it after the first. However I think that character development suffered as a result of this truncated approach.

This show simply wasn’t made for my sensibilities so I can’t gush over it. With regard to the adult content, the violence was tame compared to Spartacus (then again what isn’t), so that was a plus. The nudity and sexuality (T&A, and full male frontal) was not as ubiquitous as on Spartacus, also a plus. There was no eye candy on Rome, but I recognized that it was hard to compete in that department with gladiators. I hoped for a well told story with compelling characters, a twisty plot that kept me guessing, perhaps some interesting visuals and minimal expository dialogue. With that in mind, the greatest acting in the world wasn’t enough to immerse me in this ancient world. No doubt, the fault was mine, but I could not relate to a single character. When I began, I gave it my undivided attention for the few episodes. However, neither the patricians (Julius Cesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Octavian) nor sadly the plebians (soldiers Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus) spoke to my soul. Granted, I am a real sucker for underdogs and a pacifist at heart, so that is my bias. The entire character ensemble seemed like petulant entitled brats or bumbling fools from the get go. There was no back story and little character growth to help me relate. No one stood out as a complex villain that I could love to hate.

Because I was not emotionally invested in who lived or died, I drifted toward just following the plot and I began to multitask as I watched (exercise, kitchen chores, laundry, etc.). I was curious to see how things would unfold and wanted to give it a fair chance because it was only 22 episodes. But I couldn’t carve out time from a busy life to give it my undivided attention. That Rome failed to compelled me towards excercise was an organic litmus test. I have never been a morning person but I have been known to wake up early to tackle the treadmill in order to watch the latest episode of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Banshee, etc. that had aired the night before. Rome failed that test.

The plot of Rome held few surprises and there was not much character development to help me relate to such off-putting people. As with most shows, Rome required much suspension of disbelief which resulted in severely depleted reserves of goodwill that had been banked by its aforementioned strengths. The characters seemed to serve the plot and some subplots seemed unneccassary (the attempt on King Herrod). Time could have been served better to give us some back story and flesh out some main characters. After watching a season of people using sexual relationships as one would use facial tissue, in order to gain power no less, it was hard to accept true love as a motivating factor in any of the drastic actions in season 2. Yet that seemed to be the message. Because the end point was historically set, the value of this narrative was in the journey. And that journey wasn’t all that intriguing to me. I was never at the edge of my seat wondering “What next?” The set design was sumptuous and production values were certainly high. The acting was excellent within the confines of an unimaginitive screenplay that boasted shockingly clumsy expository dialogue. The use of a newsreader as narrator may be historically accurate but I considered it a story telling shortcut. When exposition was expressed as pillow talk, it struck a painful blow to my ears. The battles and fights were but a pale shadow to what I had seen elsewhere.

Of course, this just reflects my personal preference. I refuse to say Spartacus is a better show than Rome. I just happened to like Spartacus so much more. My opinion of Rome is no doubt clouded by my affection for Spartacus and how that show wormed its way into my heart with its larger than life (almost over the top) scrappers, both good and bad, its unique dialogue and its beautifully realized characters. At its core, Spartacus was a love story that moved me. Because Spartacus had recently aired its last episode, I had hoped Rome would assuage me. Alas, it is another victim of unrealized expectations. Rome is a tale of political machinations, a topic I find less compelling.

Rome was entertaining diversion; it was something to watch while I folded laundry, chopped veggies and waited for my kids to finish their karate lessons. But it is not a show that that touched my soul. I doubt I would watch it again; I think I would rather watch Spartacus (would that be the 5th time now?) Unless I missed something more profound in Rome than a history lesson well acted, please let me know if you think I did and I would be willing to give it another go.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Deborah Koren
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 23:57:56

    I was very interested to read this review and the one about Spartacus. I haven’t watched either Spartacus nor Rome, but it’s one of my favorite time periods and I’ve been interested in both shows. I have a feeling from your descriptions of both that Spartacus will appeal to me more, but I’m not sure! I will probably have to try them both at some point.

    And I hate that “void’ feeling we get when we finish a show and there’s nothing to really step into next that will evoke a similar feeling.

    Reply

  2. Deborah Koren
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 23:58:54

    Oh wow! FINALLY! I’ve never been able to comment on WordPress blogs, and I finally got it working! WOO! I always read your posts, then but haven’t been able to respond. Now I will! 😀

    Reply

  3. dvdiva
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 04:22:34

    Thank you for reading and commenting. Please let me know what you think about these shows (or anything else I have written about, I love talking about such things :D) if you ever get a chance to watch them. I would love to learn what I am clearly not getting about Rome. So many people love it, there must be something wrong with me.

    I have successfully hooked many friends on Spartacus, ages ranging from mid 30’s to mid 50’s. I would start with that one first and be warned that it takes 2-4 episodes to really get its hooks in. Rome would be second in terms of story telling but probably more historically authentic.

    What shows have left a void in you? Buffy comes to mind and I know Breaking Bad will when it wraps this summer.

    Reply

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