Friday, November 26, 2010

A Historic Soap Opera Is Still A Soap Opera; Rome - Season 1

The Good: Looks good, Decent acting, Amount of DVD extras
The Bad: Price, Light on character development, DVD extras ruin menace
The Basics: When Rome Season 1 appears on DVD, the extras are extensive but cannot make the source material any better than it already is.

It's hard to write a truly bad word against HBO, at least when discussing the original programming the network produces. It's a weird combination of free speech and cinema, a mix between the worst box office drecht and PBS. Or the BBC. With Rome, it begins to feel that way at least. Following on the heels of the high-concept, mystical drama Carnivale (click here for my review!), HBO produced Rome, which is one of those shows I picked up on DVD and frankly wish I liked more. But after viewing the eleven episode first season with all of its bonus materials, I just don't.

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. Sure, it's 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 DVD set where it begins to drag and die a slow, painful death. Sure, Rome wasn't burned in a day, but watching this series makes one wish it had been!

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.

Rome is plot heavy and most of the characters never become more than political tools moving around a decent landscape fighting and backbiting each other. The show has a rich cast and about a dozen regular characters who appear in each episode. The problem is, only two of them are even remotely interesting and well-developed: Vorenus and Pullo.

Lucius Vorenus is 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. Unfortunately for him, he continues to compromise as the Roman Empire is established and restored as he comes to realize that Caesar offers the best opportunity for stability and the end to the bloodshed. While he finds himself bribed into submission with promotions that put him on the political fast track and allied to Mark Anthony, the people's representative in the Senate, he works to rebond to his wife and family and learn what it is to live in peace within Rome.

Unfortunately for Vorenus, he is often plagued by his friend Titus Pullo. Pullo is in many way his opposite; hot-tempered, fighting because he delights in the fight and willing to have sex with any woman who will have him. He has a generally low sense of honor and almost no sense of discipline. Despite this, he sees Vorenus being bought off and is troubled by it, even as he himself falls into debt and mercenary work when he is no longer able to be a soldier in the army.

Much of the first season of Rome is told through the lens of the experiences of Pullo and Vorenus and while Vorenus moves up the political ladder, Pullo finds himself slumming on the dark ends of Roman society. The other truly essential characters in the first season are:

Pompey - The legitimate leader of Rome who flees with the Senate when Caesar crosses the Rubicon earlier than predicted and ignites a civil war within Rome. Powerful and generally patriotic, Pompey seeks to preserve Rome rather than fight whenever possible,

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,

Cato - A conservative Senator who believes in the Republic and insists that Caesar has failed it and must answer for his crimes,

Cicero - A more liberal Senator and great orator, he finds himself uncomfortable with Caesar's rise, but moves into his camp out of self-preservation. He quickly comes to disdain the dictatorship that Caesar's leadership represents,

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,

Atia - A manipulative woman who rules Rome's social scene opposite Servilia. She uses her children to keep herself alive and in good standing,

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,

Mark Anthony - In waiting to rule the Senate, Anthony finds himself drawn to Atia and is an ally of Caesar's . . . for a time,

and Gaius Julius Caesar - A brilliant general who seeks to take control of Rome when the Senate and Pompey move against him. He reluctantly takes up the mantle of power, but soon relishes it and exerts his authority at every opportunity.

There is a whole web of characters that come in and out and are part of various character's machinations, but the basic idea behind the series is that alliances rise and fall as Caesar comes to power and takes over Rome.

The cast is well presented with a diverse international cast that has a distinctly un-Hollywood feel to it. I see this as a good thing; the only performers I knew going into the series were Indira Varma, who played Niobe in this and I had seen in Kama Sutra: A Tale Of Love, and Kevin McKidd who played Vorenus and was on a terrible series Journeyman. The cast is decent and everyone lives up to their duties of performing.

The problem is, most of the characters are simply "types." Niobe is in many ways the doting wife with a secret, Pullo the brute with more going for him than one suspects and Atia, well, she's pretty much the archetypal conniving harpy. They are all parts with little fleshing them out beyond that. Karl Johnson's big contribution to Cato is a memorable facial expression (I swear, how he holds his mouth open with one side of his upper lip higher than the other constantly is masterful and baffling that he is able to be completely comprehensible while doing so). My point is there is not much in the way of an acting challenge for most of the performers.

There are, however, two stand outs. 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.

But it is Ciaran Hinds who steals every scene he is in. Hinds plays Caesar and he is dignified and has a bearing that screams "leader!" He comes off as believably compassionate and troubled by his character's actions, yet portrays Caesar with a sense of necessary reality. Hinds makes Caesar's actions understandable and at times almost humane.

The problem with Rome is it's too soap operatic. On DVD the series looks and sounds good, but once one figures out which redheaded woman it is who is talking (they begin to look alike in the night scenes) the series loses its intrigue and becomes an exercise in waiting for it to end. Worse than that, the show has some very cool commentary tracks . . . which gut any sense of drama the show had going for it. One episode has a commentary track where the speaker simply tells the viewer what is happening (usually a moment before it happens) and another track has one where a historian reveals exactly what the life of the real Vorenus was like, ending any sense of where the character is going or how long it will take him to get there.

The bonus disc has more behind-the-scenes features and the historian's views on the show are interesting. It is clear that the writers worked hard to make the series realistic. But . . . it's dull. It looks good, but it just doesn't pop. And it is a soap opera. It's a soap opera in armor and I wanted more.

For other, memorable, first seasons, please check out my reviews of:
Lost - Season 1
V - Season 1
True Blood - Season 1


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

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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