HBO’s Rome Reviewed

     August 26, 2005

Posted by Frosty

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Sex, violence and Julius Caesar. HBO’s Rome is an orgy of politics and violence, with a ton of sex thrown in to remind us that we are not on network television anymore. To say it like that, however, is a disservice to ancient Rome, where sex was not treated like a dirty thing, but was everywhere and sometimes occurred in large groups. Back then men loved each other, and I mean that literally. The show premieres this Sunday night on HBO, and they are counting on the series to bring huge ratings, water cooler conversation and justification of the huge budget that they split with the BBC. After watching the first six episodes out of the twelve from season one, I am hooked, ready to offer a sacrifice to whatever god will make HBO send me the final six.

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Now I don’t want to get across the idea that everything was perfect with Rome. Far from it. The first three episodes and the last three are very different. When I sat down to write this review, I did so after watching the first three episodes, and I came up with a number of issues. I was going to stop there, save the final three and watch them as they aired, but, what can I say, the show had me hooked and I didn’t want to wait. So, I watched the next three and it was as if everything I had complained about the creators had already figured out for themselves. You see, after they shot the first three episodes, they shut down production for a number of months while they “retooled” the show. After watching the first three episodes, the reason for the shutdown was clear. While the second episode was great, all three had issues.

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Episodes 1, 2 and 3

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After watching the first three, I had some problems. My main gripe is that the city seems very small. I know they built this huge five-acre set, and they made it look amazing, but what is missing are some well-done CGI shots to show the surrounding area. I always felt that they shot the Rome scenes very tight, and would have liked to see more background via the use of CGI. I know the budget was massive, and they probably didn’t have much money left for it, but they need to sell the city better and make you feel like you are actually there. In an upcoming episode, there are a few shots that try to do this from a distance outside the city, but I didn’t think it was as well done as it should have been. Of course, this is the first season, and any show needs to find its way and see what works and what doesn’t.

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Another problem I have is with how quickly characters seem to travel from Gaul to Rome. In the blink of an eye, with no mention of time or peril, a character leaves one place and is in another. On the show Deadwood, when a character leaves for Yankton, that person is gone for a few episodes. Here in ancient Rome, however, they have much faster horses that seem to get the person back to Rome only two scenes later. In an upcoming episode, they mention that someone is thirty miles away and that it will take them two days to reach the city, but I guess if you are alone, you can travel much faster. Now I realize why they need to have characters travel quickly, so that the drama and political backstabbing can move at a quicker pace.; When you make no mention of time, it makes the timeframes seem less believable.

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On a positive side, the show is intelligent, and treats the audience like they have brains. Many shows water down the politics, or conversation, to make sure the point gets across. Not Rome. The characters seem like they are interacting with one another and not playing to the camera. This is a testament to the quality of the scripts and to the actors in the scenes.

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Episodes 4, 5 and 6

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I guess they knew what didn’t work. Starting with the forth episode, the show kicked in my door and punished me for my disobedience to Apollo and the other gods. All my gripes are now out the window. They talk about the passage of time, there are great shots of CGI to add to the realism, and story lines move along faster than anything on Lost. My only real complaint is that I just watched the episode that will air in the first week of October and now I am stuck waiting to see what will happen. Without giving anything away, episode six ends on acliffhanger, so it is now summer hiatus for me.

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Also, the episodes mark a change in direction for some of the characters. While at first I was nervous that a certain character would be stuck in a certain mode (sorry, I’m trying to be spoiler free), I am happy to report that the arcs move well, and the story line is quite good.

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Something else worth mentioning is that when production was down for those months, the set they had built had taken on a life of its own, with stray dogs moving in and plants having time to grow. All of this really added to the look of the show. I really noticed the sets looking better and full with life. It was as if the hiatus meant that episode 4 was almost like the start of the second season. In those months, the crew could go over what worked and what didn’t, what had to be fixed and what could be left alone.

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What is Rome About?

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Rather than go into a detailed description, how about a very broad overview, so you can watch the show unspoiled. The show opens in the year 52 B.C. with Gaius Julius Caesar finishing his takeover of Gaul. With his success comes money, fame and fear. The fear is from the aristocracy of Rome. They are scared of losing power to this popular general, but Caesar has no plans to give up his power to the aristocracy. Meanwhile, we cut to two legionnaires, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. Lucius is a clear-headed, god-fearing warrior who has not seen his wife and family in eight years. Titus is a wine-drinking, brothel-loving legionnaire who often acts without thinking. The soldiers interact with the leaders of their times and, through them, we get to see both the aristocracy and the everyday lives of the people. I guess the easiest way to describe the show is to say it is like The West Wing set in 52 B.C. The show follows the rulers of the time, while also focusing on the supporting staff and what is going on behind the scenes.

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What I think the show does really well is not try to be politically correct. There is no mention of treating the slaves well, or a character showing remorse for having to kill a man. Ancient Rome was filled with hard times in which survival was difficult and life wasn’t simple. Too often, we see shows that cater to modern times and try to sugar coat or shy away from the difficult storylines. This is not a show for the family. Often, we cut from a peaceful dialogue-driven scene to two people going at it with the screams of ecstasy carrying off into neighboring apartments. I also liked the way the show depicted religion in ancient Rome. This was a time before Christ, and Romans’ beliefs were radically different from those of modern times. They believed in the gods, and how their pigeons flew off when released was taken as a sign from the gods. The more the show included the ancient customs, even when they got really bloody, the more I was able to buy into the believability of everything else.

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Final Words

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Overall, Rome takes a bit to get going, like almost any new show, but once it starts up, I’d say viewers are in for a great ride. While I really liked episode two, entitled “How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic”, episodes four, five and six;really got it right, and if you give it a chance, you’ll be rewarded for your patience. Rome is definitely recommended.

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