Some recent HBO productions have fallen short of the “It’s not TV” boast. Amid pressure to deliver, then, “Rome” is a lavish series that offers many lusty pleasures similar to the net’s other period drama, “Deadwood.” Coarse, initially convoluted and densely populated by roguish characters, it’s an intriguing world that hews closer to “I, Claudius” than “Gladiator,” with all the expected pay-cable debauchery. (It’s not for the faint of heart). After watching half of the dozen episodes, I’m hooked, with the disclaimer that this ambitious venture requires a no-reading-the-Sunday-paper-while-watching commitment.
As with ABC’s limited series “Empire,” “Rome” explores the political machinations surrounding who will govern Rome in part from the perspective of fictional characters. In terms of scope and complexity, however, the similarities end there.
Admittedly, the first hour labors somewhat in laying the intricate groundwork for what’s to come, but the series begins nicely, taking shape in the second episode. It hits its soapy stride by the third.
It’s 52 B.C., and an uneasy power-sharing arrangement exists between Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds), who has spent nearly eight years off conquering Gaul; and Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham), who, along with the patrician class, is hunkered down in Rome, warily eyeing Caesar’s popularity with the plebeians and appetite for monarchy.
At the same time, a ground-up view of Caesar’s carefully plotted ascent comes from two warriors in his 13th legion. Stern, humorless Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) is a model soldier but knows little else, while the brawny, boozing Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) becomes his rather unlikely companion in what seems a fool’s errand. Their inadvertent rescue of Caesar’s nephew Octavian (“Master and Commander’s” Max Pirkis) is one of many moments where these two ordinary chaps unwittingly figure prominently in the grand drama that’s unfolding.
No trip to ancient Rome would be complete without a healthy dose of sex, which is amply supplied by Caesar’s conniving niece Atia (Polly Walker), who beds enough powerful men — including Caesar confidant Mark Antony (James Purefoy) — to practically open her own second front. Literally bathing in blood at one point, she’s completely unabashed about pimping out her daughter to further her goals.
A more poignant storyline, meanwhile, involves Vorenus awkwardly attempting to integrate back into domestic life, having become a stranger to the wife (the breathtaking Indira Varma) and children from whom he’s been separated nearly eight years.
Beautifully shot by director Michael Apted in a manner that transforms Rome into a vibrant, breathing creation, the series is also rife with grisly moments, including a gut-wrenching demonstration of anesthetic-free surgery in the second installment. Yet for all the epic scale and stakes, the production hews to courtroom and bedroom encounters as opposed to great bloody battles.
Most of the impressive cast will be strangers to a U.S. audience, and viewers might need a scorecard to keep up with the strategic webs spun by Caesar, Pompey and their various surrogates, but the imposing Stevenson certainly stands out as a brawling, whoring and none-too-bright warrior — a force of nature who, despite his excesses, somehow keeps landing on his feet.
With its feuding leaders and warring camps, “Rome” does in some respects echo the structure of “Deadwood,” which is tinged with no small dose of irony. After all, producer David Milch pitched the network a Rome-based drama that morphed into his revisionist Western because of that prior commitment.
In terms of solving the pay cabler’s Sunday-night “Desperate Housewives” dilemma, “Rome” probably won’t be built in a day. Indeed, as with “Deadwood” and “The Wire,” the show seems destined to enslave a smaller audience than the channel mustered when the city of carnal delights was Manhattan or the rub-outs were carried out with a revolver, not a rapier.
Strictly from a creative perspective, however, HBO’s adventures in history appear to have provided viewers the best of both worlds.