Friday, February 16, 2007

When in Rome...

I'm sure no one needs entertainment recommendations from me; still, I give them anyway. Sometimes I actually manage to have an opinion on a current movie, but most of the time I'm just blabbing on about some trend or genre I find interesting--that is, when I'm not being a crazy fanboy or making some ancient pop observation. This particular observation and recommendation isn't quite ancient, but it is late, all the same. Still, it case anyone cares, here it is: watch Rome.

Unfortunately, at this moment, I'm not--we don't have cable, so I'll just have to wait until the current season is released on dvd and I can Netflix it. But I just finished the first season this week, and man--not, perhaps, the very best television I have ever seen, but certainly close to the top. I have almost completely missed all the highly-praised HBO series of the past several years; even when we had cable, I only very rarely tuned in to an episode of The Sopranos or Big Love, and I've yet to see a bit of The Wire or Deadwood (despite the fact that the latter two, in particular, keep getting praised to me by various political scientists and theorists who find their exploration of community and its corruptions utterly compelling). But something about Rome really appealed to Melissa and I (our daughter's interest in Greek mythology, perhaps? my old collection of Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization, sitting there on the shelf and mocking us for knowing so little ancient history? the fact that Julius Caesar was being played by Ciarán Hinds, my wife's beloved Captain Wentworth? who knows?). Anyway, we decided to gamble on it. Melissa bailed after watching the first season's very first episode; HBO-style sex and violence just wasn't something she was interested in wading through. Generally, I have very little patience for that sort of either; while I know from experience that I am far more tolerant of vulgarity and raunch and blood than most folks of my religious persuasion, I still am only really content with it when I see it truly serving a story well-told, and for the first few episodes of Rome, I have to admit I didn't see that. But I stuck with it, and man, am I glad I did.

Robert Farley was onto Rome early, and he's stuck with it, as no doubt many other bloggers have, so there's no point in me doing a rundown on the great cast and storytelling and design and so forth (though, I can't refrain from saying, the determination of the creators of the series to shed the Western European classicism which weighs down our usual imagining of Rome, and bring it to life as pulsating, pagan, Mediterranean city, something they emphasize from the opening credits and music onward, is simply genius). All the reviews you could need are out there and more. (Indeed, it's really hard for me to refrain from reading them all, so desperate am I to find out what's happening now in the second season.) But I will say this, by way of trying to draw in a different category of viewers: the writers seem to have worked out all their giddy desire to live up to the license granted them by HBO by the fourth or fifth episode of the first season, and from then on the violence and sex, while often plentiful, was never gratuitous. A lesbian romance late in the season is given full, graphic, and highly erotic treatment, and it works terrifically, because by then we know the participants well enough, and more important the actors seem to know their characters well enough--particularly Lindsay Duncan's Servilia--to be able to see how the scene is also catching the passions and plots and fears of these women up into the wider story. The same goes for the gladiator scene in the penultimate episode: you know--you just know--various HBO executives must have been glamoring to get Lucius Vorenus and/or Titus Pullo into a big old limb-hacking gladiator encounter from the very beginning; but when the writers finally (after often allowing some of the bloodiest scenes in the series to happen offscreen) gave in and gave us that moment, the result was not only gloriously gory, but genuinely and believably moving. When Lucius charged in to the ring, shouting "Thirteen!", it was more than just you're usual triumph-over-terrible-odds moment; these folks had earned our respect, and I, at least, felt like cheering just like the plebeians in the crowd. (Though, since I was watching the episode at about 1:00am downstairs, I kept it quiet.)

Anyway, pick up the dvds of Rome, and enjoy. And if you've long since discovered it, and you're finding the second season every bit as good, don't you dare e-mail me and tell me anything about it.

3 comments:

MR Bill said...

It's interesting to compare the big budget Rome with the old BBC produced I, Claudius. Despite the sometimes clunky exposition, Claudius still holds up, IMHO.

Russell Arben Fox said...

It's good to be reminded of that series, Mr. Bill; I've heard about for as long as I can remember, but never seen a single episode. I really ought to take the time to watch it, one of these days.

Nate Oman said...

RAF: I missed this earlier, but I also really liked Rome, which I watched on DVD this summer. I have always enjoyed ancient history, and if I was better at languages I would have been sorely tempted to become a classicist.

They do a pretty good job with the history, although the choice to begin the story with Caesar's decision to march on Rome makes it more difficult to see the sort of politics of which he was both the apotheosis and end of.