Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An HBO Series Easy To Pass On: Rome - The Complete Series!

The Good: DVD Bonus features are extensive, Moments of acting, plot and character
The Bad: Much of the plot is soap operatic, Stifling price, Much of the character is dominated by plot.
The Basics: A take-it or leave-it HBO series, Rome makes it easy to leave with its stifling price and soap opera qualities.

HBO is fairly well known for making great television and then unleashing it into the home video (DVD) market at a rather steep price. Every now and then, the network has a show that might not be up to the standards of the other shows and when it is released on DVD, it forces the consumer to consider if it truly is worth it or not. With the show Rome, bundled together for its complete series pack, my answer came fairly easily. No, this is not a series that is worth owning.

With only two seasons, Rome - The Complete Series is a bundle pack of the exact packaging and DVDs of Rome - The Complete First Season and Rome - The Complete Second Season. To be clear, there is no additional programming, no other discs, no bonus materials or collectibles received by purchasing the bundle pack of Rome. It is the entire series, exactly as presented before, with a shrink wrap connecting the two boxed sets. So, there is also no space saving benefit to purchasing Rome in this fashion. Though there is a new pack for the complete series, there are no additional features to that set.

For those unfamiliar with Rome, in its first season, is an ambitious historical drama series that looks phenomenal and has decent acting, but ultimately is written and played out like a soap opera. As it progresses, it begins to shed the soap operatic plot twists and instead makes the characters more concerned with who is having relations with whom and the characters begin to be somewhat droll. To be sure, this is an expensive and good-looking soap opera, but it never rises above a long series of plot machinations by petty characters all out to advance their own self-interest. And while it was initially gripping, there comes a point fairly early on in the the first season where it begins to drag and even when it finally overcomes that with the second season, much of the second season deals with cleaning up after the first and it is hard to care about much of what happens because the viewer has already been so bored. The plot and character twists - even for those not tuned in to history - are predictable enough to be seen well in advance.

Rome tells the story of the shifty period in Roman history about 50 years before the birth of Christ and it tells the story by offsetting the most important political figures of the day with two soldiers, Vorenus and Pullo, and two citizens who are close to the cordons of power, Servilla and Atia.

As the Gallic Wars come to an end, Rome's co-Consuls Pompey Magnus and Gaius Julius Caesar are ruling over the most powerful democracy in Europe, which is facing a crisis. As the Senate calls for Caesar to return to the city of Rome to answer for his illegal war against the Gauls, Pompey comes to understand that Caesar is unlikely to be willing to leave his post - which offers him immunity so long as he possesses it - willingly and when Pompey's wife (Caesar's daughter) dies in in labor, Pompey attempts to have Caesar put down with peaceful Senate bureaucracy.

Unfortunately for Pompey and Rome, Lucius Vorenus - a hero of the Gallic Wars - returns to Rome to his wife, with his comrade Titus Pullo at his side. When the political machinations of Pompey and the Senate condemning Caesar are undone by a drunken attack on the man who can veto the motion against Caesar - a result of Pullo and some bad gambling - Rome is plunged into a civil war and Caesar chases Pompey into Africa to claim control of Rome.

Along the way, Vorenus and Pullo become friends, look for work outside the Army, weigh their places as people embroiled deeply in political events way over their heads and struggle with their personal lives. Vorenus has returned home to Niobe, who has borne a son by another man while Vorenus was away for eight years fighting in the Wars, which Pullo soon learns about. On the other side of Rome, the scheming Atia, niece of Caesar works against Servilla, the rejected mistress of Caesar who desires revenge.

When Niobe's infidelity is exposed and Julius Caesar is killed, a power vacuum forms and the Senate, Antony, and Octavian - the willed heir of Caesar - sets the Republic into chaos. As Pullo struggles to find domestic bliss while saving Vorenus from his own inner demons, they find themselves on opposing sides of a three front civil conflict, despite their deep friendship.

The plots are more or less historically accurate, sexed up and with enough graphic violence to please those paying through the nose for the HBO series. Rather problematically, most of the plot devices and twists are rather predictable. So, for example, when Pullo finds himself disciplining a slave, it becomes pretty predictable - given his prior actions - that they would end up having sex and then, given how cunning and manipulative she has been, the actions she takes to try to make Pullo hers.

In order to better understand the series, it helps to have an idea of who the characters are. The principle characters in Rome are:

Lucius Vorenus - an honorable man, a warrior who is loyal to Rome and has a strong desire to provide for his family and do right by the democracy he believes in. Vorenus finds himself in the difficult bind of being caught behind Caesar's lines when the civil war begins and thus ends up on the side he disagrees with. Finding himself bonded to Mark Antony through an oath his honor will not allow him the break, after a personal tragedy, he finds his life uprooted frequently,

Titus Pullo - A partier and reckless warrior, he finds it difficult to live in Rome after he retires from being a soldier. He begins to watch Vorenus's back and he tries hard to form a relationship, with a slave he falls in love with named Eirene. He mentors the young Octavian and that gives him access and a valued position as the boy grows into one of the most powerful men in the world,

Octavian - Atia's son, a Roman boy who is coming into manhood during the turbulent times following the civil war. Octavian becomes an aide to Caesar and is mentored by Pullo. He has some wisdom and despises his mother's political machinations. Despite this, when power is thrust upon him, he becomes a cunning individual who rivals his mother,

Mark Antony - In waiting to rule the Senate, Antony finds himself drawn to Atia and is an ally of Caesar's. But as his term as proconsul nears an end, he finds himself in jeopardy and following Caesar's assassination, he begins to fight for his own political dominance of Rome,

Brutus - An ally to Caesar who flees with Pompey's forces because he believes that Caesar's advance is wrong. He straddles the difficult line between supporting Caesar, fearing him and wanting the Republic to be strong. As one of the people who assassinates Caesar, he is put in an awkward position when Octavian and the Senate declare him an enemy of the state and he is forced to flee,

Atia - A manipulative woman who rules Rome's social scene opposite Servilia. She uses her children to keep herself alive and in good standing. Lover of Mark Antony, she is heartbroken when Antony's machinations land him in Egypt in the arms of Cleopatra,

and Servilia - A manipulative woman who rules Rome's social scene opposite Atia. She was wronged by Caesar and seeks revenge and wants to watch him suffer. She wreaks havoc on Atia's family and ultimately Atia strikes back in a brutal way.

The only genuinely interesting character relationship is that of Pullo and Vorenus. They struggle through all adversity to remain friends, despite their initial distrust of one another. This is, in many ways, the story of Rome seen through the eyes of two soldiers who find themselves embroiled in the larger political matters, through little effort or desire of their own!

The acting is generally decent, though it is problematic in points because the characters are such "types" and are confined to executing obvious soap opera-like twists. But performers like Ciaran Hinds, Indira Varma, Max Pirkis, and Polly Walker lend the show a caliber that makes it watchable even at its worst.

Kevin McKidd is truly wonderful as Vorenus. He plays him as a truly tortured soul and the role gives him a lot to play with. He is moody and somber one moment, loving the next, caught between politics and morals the next. McKidd gives a subtle performance that is able to go through such a wide array of emotions almost constantly. Add to that, he has a stare that is lethal and wonderful.

Stevenson makes up for McKidd's unflinching consistency with his more varied performance of Pullo. Stevenson is able to soften Pullo and present more emotional range as Pullo settles into being a husband and potential father. As Pullo develops from a warrior into a common citizen, Stevenson is given a chance to alter his solid body language and soften it with a performance that presents a man who is more flexible and genuinely loving and Stevenson does that quite well.

On the DVD set, Rome is given a decent number of bonus features. There are commentary tracks on many of the episodes, there is a text commentary series called "All Roads Lead To Rome" on every single episode where a historian notes the historical truths and inaccuracies in the series, and there are multiple featurettes exploring the character relations, plot developments and behind-the-scenes production of the series. There are also recaps and previews with each episode, making it a very HBO standard release in that way.

And while it looks good with decent costumes and set designs, ultimately in many ways it is a soap opera and it is one that doesn't quite spark the way some HBO programming does. It makes it possible to pass on it because it is more average than extraordinary.

For a far better HBO series DVD sets, please check out:
Six Feet Under
True Blood - Season 1


For other television season reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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