Rome as a TV series? If you're wondering why in the name of the Gods that HBO would give us swords and togas instead of another present-day drama like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, the answer is simple: drama doesn't get any more classic than this. If their western Deadwood is just too dirty and profane for some people and the depression-era mysticism of Carnivale left others scratching their heads, Rome may surprise viewers with how compelling it can be and how relevant it can feel.
Last night I saw the premiere at the Wadsworth Theater at the Veteran Affairs property in Brentwood. I was five rows back, center aisle, and it took me on a journey I was glad to take. It's a fine, fine piece of film.
You know the premise: it's 52 B.C. and Gaius Julius Caesar is wrapping up his successful eight-year war in Gaul. He's coming back as a conquering hero which sets up a fight for control of Rome with Senate leader Pompey Magnus. We're talking Civil War, and without posting a spoiler here, you just know it's going to get nasty. There's a cat named Brutus in the background here. Catch my drift?
Don't think this is a history lesson, however. . .
Well, actually, do think this is a history lesson, but the kind you want to take. It's done with such impeccable accuracy that it includes detail down to the preferred sexual position of Romans, and full-frontal nudity for men and women. It's also got hot women of a certain age taking a blood shower from a gored ox. Basically, it's got a load of kinky sex to go with its politics and war. The sexual explicitness is mirabile dictu (Latin for "wonderful to describe"). Like it really was back in Rome in the day.
People keep wanting to compare it to I, Claudius, the BBC mini-series that aired in the States back in 1977, saying that production was the best program ever set in ancient Rome. I have no reason to doubt that, but most people alive today have never seen it. I haven't. And if I'm going to spend some pyschic time in Rome, I'm taking the HBO tour.
There are all kinds of great actors in this piece, almost all of whom you've never heard of but who may end up being big names after this run. The one who pops for me is Max Pirkis who plays Octavian. He was the kid in Master and Commander who had his arm amputated. In this, he's cold, cunning and has a wonderful sense of entitlement that can only come with being born patrician in a city full of plebians.
After the screening, I had a chance to compare notes with a lot of people at the after-party. By the way, HBO throws the best parties in town and when they break out a new series or a new season it's always a spectacle. Last night's felt like a Roman toga party, complete with archery and psychics and torches. Anyway, based on what I heard I think, initially, men may like this more than women. Still, that may change as people realize that Rome isn't I, Claudius or Spartacus or even ABC's recent Empire. It's more Gladiator in tone with sex substituting for a few of the battles. Works for me as a male and will probably work for women as well when they realize it's not just blood and guts but has a lot to say about society and empire.
Rome premieres August 28 at 9pm. Watch the first episode for the spectacle and because HBO thought it was good enough to make a signature series out of. Stick around for a few episodes after that, and you'll stop seeing the robes, sandals and swords and see only the riveting story and the profoundly human characters. This is going to be very good stuff...