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January 12, 2007 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | January 12, 2007 |

“Rome” isn’t like its dramatic HBO brethren — it’s not as dense as “Deadwood,” nor as layered as “The Wire,” nor as addictive as “The Sopranos.” Nevertheless, it’s a ridiculously good show. But most folks don’t know this, because it seems that the vast majority of people either haven’t bothered to watch it at all or started to watch but gave up after being bored and/or confused. Truth be told, I was almost in that second category. When I first started watching the show, I couldn’t quite follow who all the senators were, I didn’t really get what was going on between Pompey and Caesar, and something just felt drudgingly slow about the pacing of it all. But I stuck with it, as I generally do with HBO fare, and sumbitch if something didn’t click around episode five. Suddenly, I was getting those finer points that were a bit hazy to me before, and I was absolutely loving all of it. Having just re-watched the first season again, in preparation for Sunday night’s second season premiere, I found it even more enjoyable the second time around (because I was able to follow all the intricacies right from the get-go).

For those who haven’t seen it, the premise of the show basically boils down to this: The first season followed Caesar’s rise to, and fall from, power, and this second season will watch the Roman Republic start to become the Roman Empire (although, depending on your interpretation, an argument can be made that the show has already entered the era of the Roman Empire). Of course, while the premise boils down into that nice little sentence, the devil, as they say, is in the details. And that’s where “Rome” really shines. Watching the various political factions vie for control of the Republic/Empire is fascinating (and even a little educational!). More enjoyable, and slightly voyeuristic, is the ancient Roman soap opera between the patrician (i.e., rich and elite) families, which is, of course, intricately woven with the political battles.

The first hour of season two (which premiers Sunday night, January 14, at 9 p.m.) picks up right where these storylines left off — the show’s very first shot, in fact, is of Caesar’s mutilated body still sprawled across the senate floor. If you know anything of the Roman history following Caesar’s death, little in this first hour will surprise you, as it merely sets the gears in motion for Caesar’s successors to start taking power. And I suspect that, knowing most of what happens on the political side of things, there will be little in the way of surprise (assuming the show continues to stay relatively accurate). Although, with this being the show’s final season, it will be interesting to see how far down the timeline they take things. In any event, knowledge of what’s to come doesn’t make it any less interesting or intriguing and, for me at least, it actually makes the show slightly better by lending an almost morose air of inevitability to things (much as the final episodes of season one had, leading up to the assassination).

Of course, the political and power struggles are really secondary here. The true genius of “Rome” has been the decision to make the heart of the show two plebeians (i.e., the non-rich and non-elite), the brooding Lucius Vorenus and the boorish Titus Pullo. We first met them as simple soldiers in Caesar’s feared 13th Legion, men who had been away from home for eight years while fighting Caesar’s war against the Gauls. Through the course of the first season, we watched Vorenus struggling with his forced upward mobility and, even harder for the man, learning how to reconnect with his family. Pullo, meanwhile, took an ugly downward spiral, culminating with several murders and his near-execution. But it was the intricacies of the two men’s journey and the friendship that formed between them that held the show together on its most basic emotional level. Plus, because the Fates seem to favor them both, Titus and Lucius frequently found themselves just off-center of the greater historical moments and political/power machinations taking place around them, adding a common-man perspective and influence to many of these moments.

With season two, it’s clear that Pullo and Vorenus’ journey is not over, although the men appear to be on decidedly different paths. Things have taken an ugly turn for Lucius following his wife’s balcony plunge. While he appears to be falling, Titus is trying to climb back up by establishing a grounded life for himself, which includes trying to reconnect with his now-freed slave (which happens to give us the best line of the hour — “I know I didn’t get us started off on the right foot, killing your man and all, and I’m sorry for that”). From things I’ve read and seen, I know that both of their stories are going to get rather dark and will also delve even more into the Roman criminal world than last season. And while it’s exciting to see how the political side of things play out, even having the knowledge of what’s to come, it’s even more exciting to have no idea what’s really in store for our Titus and Lucius.

The point of it all is this: If you were one of the few who stuck with season one, this second and final season has started out strong and looks like it won’t disappoint. Ave Roma! (Oh, and for the record, try not to let an ancient Roman ever put a curse on you — for those keeping track, the curses are winning 3-1 right now, with only Atia surviving, so far, the curse on her head.)

And after an hour of blood, treachery and tragedy, it would be nice to have something on the lighter side of things. Which is why, I suspect, HBO has chosen to follow “Rome” with the second series of “Extras” (also premiering on Sunday, January 14, at 10 p.m.). Now I know a lot of folks were somewhat disappointed with the first series, and this is largely due to great expectations. If you went in expecting something of “The Office“‘s caliber, of course you were going to be disappointed. Ricky Gervais will never again bottle that fire, and he knows it. But taken solely on its own, “Extras” was a fine entertainment. The strongest element of the show was frequently the fantastic guest appearances (Patrick Stewart and Kate Winslet were nothing short of brilliant). Now, however, things seem to be clicking a bit more and Andy (Gervais), his stumbling friend Maggie, and his woefully incompetent agent all provide several hilarious moments. In fact, I laughed just as much during the first episode of “Extras” as I did during last night’s great episode of “The Office.”

It may seem like I’m giving “Extras” considerably short shrift compared to the lengthy discussion about “Rome,” and that would be correct. Truth is, there’s just not much to say about the show. It’s funny, and the writing appears to be tighter and stronger than in the first go-round. And yes, there are more guest stars — Orlando Bloom had a great role in the opener, and the clips I’ve seen of David Bowie, Daniel Radcliffe, and Ian McKellan all look outstanding. In fact, I think the show’s taglines sum things up pretty well. The first season’s tag was “The story of a man with small parts.” This season, which follows Andy as he puts his BBC comedy together, is “The parts are bigger, but they’re over exposed.” And there you have it.


Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television columnist. If he had lived in ancient Rome, he would have liked to have owned a dwarf slave because, like Marc Antony, he would have found the dwarf amusing. But he doesn’t find dwarves presently amusing — that would be wrong. Only Ancient Roman TV Whore finds dwarves amusing. Right then.

Roman Tragedy and British Comedy, Together Again

"Rome" and "Extras" / The TV Whore
January 12, 2007

TV | January 12, 2007 |

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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