Tomorrow sees the debut of the drama series Rome on BBC2, with a first season of 11 episodes (the second season is already confirmed). It’s a BBC-HBO co-production, which means that it has a lot of British actors in it but otherwise leans towards the HBO house style in every respect. Although the BBC are trailering it as if it’s the next big costume drama, it bears far more resemblance to HBO’s Deadwood.
As I’ve said before, the heart of the show is the depiction of Rome itself, which is realised in a refeshingly clear-sighted way. Instead of transplanting modern characters into a historical setting, it tries to depict the way that real Romans thought and behaved; very different from modern concepts of morality and philosophy. It’s a genuine strength of the series, even though I suspect there’s a lot to nitpick in the details. In this series Rome is a city of vibrant colours, grimy streets, crime, markets, and everyday life. Even the proclamations in the Forum are sponsored by the miller’s guild, “who use only the finest flour…”.
As a drama the characters are likeable and the tale is never less than interesting, though seldom riveting. The story is principally told through the amusing odd couple pairing of Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, both serving in Caesar’s army: one an upright officer, the other a drunken footsoldier; two very ordinary men whose lives repeatedly intertwine with great moments of history. Both performances are great and these characters inject a great deal of humanity into the show. Alongside their tale is the fascinating and epic story of Caesar and Pompey, driving events but often playing second fiddle to the human drama. Ciarán Hinds and James Purefoy as Caesar and Marc Antony respectively are particularly well cast. And alongside this is plenty of sex and soap opera, albeit soap which the viewer is encouraged to regard with a certain wry detachment.
On the negative side the show is a truly odd mixture, blending a relatively authentic and well-researched view of Rome (to my layman’s eye) with human drama but also a hefty dollop of salacious melodrama. Moreover, it’s a weirdly low key series, in which a whole year can sometimes pass between scenes, and heroic battles and epic events often occur just off screen or between episodes. There’s that Shakespearean tendency for characters to discuss something truly amazing which the viewer has just missed. For an epic series with such a massive budget it feels oddly small scale a lot of the time.
The other flaw is the depiction of women. As in Deadwood the women may be strong characters but they occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder and their lot is sometimes deeply demeaning. Although in many ways the women wield a great degree of covert power and do drive events, they’re frequently treated as sex objects by the chauvanistic male characters, and their power often rests in their sexuality. This is excused to an extent because the programme is clearly appraoching it as an artefact of history, but more inexcusably the camera, too, tends to sexualise and objectify the women. Then again, we do get some cheerful full-frontal male nudity to slightly balance things out, and things are not significantly worse than Deadwood. (It hasn’t dampened my wife’s enjoyment for the series so far.)
My other complaint is more superficial, which is the opening credits sequence. Visually this romp through ancient Rome accompanied by animated graffiti is excellent, but musically the series cries out for ‘oomph’ in its theme. What it gets instead is pretty much the theme to Carnivale or Deadwood with a slight twist. I adore the theme to Carnivale. It fits Carnivale very well. It’s slightly out of place here.
Overall, then, I do have my reservations, but the show has proven to be a steady grower over the episodes I’ve seen to date. If you have the stomach for its quirks and excesses there’s a lot of texture and flavour to reward you, and a sense of watching real people interact with real history.
EDIT: The BBC has condensed the first three US episodes into two episodes. It sounds almost impossibly crazy, but I’ve checked and it’s true: the BBC’s first episode takes us midway through episode 2 of the US version. Unbelievable. Apparently the BBC feel this version is tighter and that they don’t need to give UK viewers as much background on Rome, but in doing so they’re losing loads of character moments, cultural moments, and connecting scenes. I’m really quite annoyed about it.