“Empire” won’t make anyone forget “Gladiator” or “I, Claudius,” but somewhere amid its watered-down elements of both lies a fairly entertaining limited series — a pleasant surprise in light of its torturous history, which included an on-set fire and whittling the project down by a quarter. Although it’s questionable how many will show up in the heat of summer for ABC’s get-there-first ploy vs. HBO’s upcoming “Rome,” those that do should check their brains, dish up some pasta and enjoy the ride.
In the fashion of a typical quest tale, a teenage youth must grow up fast after the Roman Senate murders his uncle, who happens to be Julius Caesar (Colm Feore). Before he breathes his last, Caesar charges a champion gladiator, Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake), with keeping the kid alive and toughening him up enough to rule.
That’s no small task, since Octavius (Santiago Cabrera) is a spoiled patrician, and the Senate, under the stewardship of sneering Cassius (Michael Maloney), wants to do him in to prevent the threat of civil war.
So off Tyrannus and Octavius go, through a gantlet of ordeals that inevitably seems to end with them galloping across the countryside as the music swells. Pivotal in the would-be Caesar’s future, meanwhile, is whether he can secure the allegiance of Marc Antony (well played by Vincent Regan), a Caesar confidante whose motives remain unclear, since his late friend didn’t see fit to pass him the scepter.
For all the opulent sets, the early going proves too chatty, and the action sequences don’t yield many sparks other than a very cool baton-twirling motion that Tyrannus does with his swords.
Nevertheless, the project is well cast and moves reasonably smoothly from one peril to the next, as Octavius seeks to rally army legions behind him while never being entirely sure whom to trust beyond his burly guardian and Camane (Emily Blunt), a Vestal virgin who risks much — including the safety of her religious order — by assisting him.
At times the narrative feels a trifle chaotic, though that’s in keeping with the disorder that unfolds in hourlong installments after the initial two-hour launch. On the plus side, there’s sharp dialogue delivered by talented performers, such as Brutus (James Frain, most recently seen in “24”) lamenting that he has become “a political actor, in a drama that’s fast becoming a farce.” Et tu, indeed.
Cake brings an imposing physical presence to his role, while Cabrera has the more thankless task, asked to transition from brat to inspirational leader in a too-modest span.
The final result is pretty formulaic — essentially “Gladiator Minimus” — leaving HBO ample room to operate on higher (and racier) ground. An orgy sequence in a later episode, for example, really isn’t much more revealing than the average shampoo commercial.
Nevertheless, it’s not a bad trek, and there’s nothing that says two nets can’t dial up the same historical era, so long as both adequately cover their Roman charges.