'Rome' Is Burning Bright

"Rome," an HBO-BBC production, presents an ancient but relevant political realm with the flourish of high drama and the urgency of current headlines. (Franco Biciocchi)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 14, 2007

Now, in the dog days of winter, during a kind of twilight zone between the regular season's first half and the February sweeps -- while the broadcast networks air reruns and vapid reality shows -- HBO reminds us of the better uses to which television can be put.

The HBO season begins auspiciously and, lest that sound stuffy, raucously tonight with the welcome returns of "Rome," an epic that the network says is entering its second "and final" season; and "Extras," the cunningly funny comedy starring and co-authored by British sensation Ricky Gervais.

The two shows put together, of course, don't have the weight and sizzle of "The Sopranos," which at one point in history was supposed to return this month with the first of nine final episodes, but now is reportedly set to return Sunday, April 8. It's March of 44 B.C., though, when "Rome" resumes tonight for its 10-episode farewell. Perhaps it's late on March 15 or early on the 16th, for one of the first sights is the bloodstained floor of the Roman Senate and then, when the camera pans over, the very bloody corpse of Gaius Julius Caesar himself, dead at the hands of assassins. Ciarin Hinds seems a good sport to return in the role, considering all he gets to do is lie there stiff as a statue.

Then again, in one scene, as some bizarre part of the mourning ritual, a woman briefly inserts a nipple into Caesar's half-open mouth.

It's senseless on the surface but a haunting bit of imagery.

Otherwise, there's less mourning by far than there is bickering -- a near-constant sordid squabble over Caesar's title and wealth. Squabbling survivors include James Purefoy as a rowdy and assertive Marc Antony, the weary widow Calpurnia (Hayden Gwynne), that really big shrew Atia (Polly Walker) and Caesar's Doogie-like teenage heir Octavian (Max Pirkis, a model of youthful self-assurance). Among the finer points debated is whether Caesar will be posthumously declared a tyrant and his murder thus characterized as tyrannicide.

Then there's the question of whether one can hold the title of "dictator" in a government that calls itself a republic. If it sounds as if the creators of "Rome" are attempting to practice the art of allegory, it's not the case. That would be too pedantic, perhaps even preachy. Still, when Antony sighs and says, "Messy things, elections," he could as well be a citizen of A.D. 2007 as of the pre-Christian century in which he's sighing.

The production is nothing if not rich, awash in muted hues, populated with rivetingly complex characters and yet disappointingly low on spectacle -- at least for the season's first two episodes. One of the most colorful little details of Roman life is the presence of a great, fat town crier, who practices the ancient equivalent of spin control, proclaiming that Caesar's funeral will be held "in the spirit of unity and forgiveness" -- neither of which is anywhere apparent -- and adding that although the ceremony is open to the public, "no prostitutes, actors or unclean tradesmen may attend."

One wonders whether the filmmakers were tempted to include "critics" in that list -- even though "Rome" received generally favorable reviews upon its debut last year and deserves a few more heaps of praise for returning in garishly grand style.

Continuing the sort of upstairs-downstairs parallel storylines, we leave Caesar's ring of mourners and murderers tonight to find out what's become of the centurion Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and his loyal slave-turned-friend, Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). What's become of them is that Vorenus is doing more passionate mourning of his own slain wife than anyone is lavishing on poor old Caesar, and Pullo, roaming in the countryside, has freed another slave by asking her to marry him.

Eventually, Pullo and Vorenus will meet up again, and the former slave will help his old pal get out of bed and face the ugly realities of politics and politicians, as well as trying to paste his ravaged life back together. Rome is not in ruins yet, but blood runs in the streets, muggings are hardly rare, and, in a moment of pique, Antony slits a political foe's throat as casually as if he were shaking hands.

Heads roll, literally. Antony tosses one into the trash during a visit to Vorenus, one of the moments when their paths cross, when the governing and the governed briefly collude. Moments later, who should undulate into town but Cleopatra, fresh and feisty after the long trip from Egypt to pay her respects. She's played (by delicately pretty Lyndsey Marshal) not as a seasoned vamp but as a teasing nymphette, a pop star with jet-black hair and a peachy-pale complexion.

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