'Rome' Is Burning Bright
On HBO, Welcome Returns For Epic Drama, Sitcom 'Extras'

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.

Sparks fly, enemies are throttled, sinister plots are hatched. Director Tim Van Patten has his finest moments beginning with the lighting of Caesar's funeral pyre; fire illuminates the faces of the conspiring survivors gathered in a darkened room, but suddenly the doors are flung open to the harsh glare of day -- and the eyes of the public. There's considerable talk about what "the people" will think, and how things will play with the populace. "Rome" dramatizes, among other things, the birth of politics as usual -- and dramatizes it with the flourish of high drama and the urgency of tonight's headlines.

Most of the actors playing Romans sound very very British (one member of the riffraff, ranting in a bar, affects a Cockney accent, consistent with the internal logic of the piece). That isn't the case merely because "Rome" is an HBO-BBC co-production; it's just the way things have always been done in epics of epoch.

American viewers might wish that some of them spoke their British English more slowly, but most of the actors are models of clarity compared with the cast of "Extras," the sitcom -- really too tacky a term for it -- about life in show business's lower depths.

Ricky Gervais, creator of "The Office," returns in the role of Andy Millman, a chap born to be a nobody and, during the first season of "Extras," making his living as an extra in the movies -- not so much a performer as a part of the scenery, the ambiance, the atmosphere. Fortunately, Gervais, who executive-produces with longtime ally Stephen Merchant, has brought back Ashley Jensen as Maggie Jacobs, his platonic girlfriend and, to an even greater degree than Millman, veritably imposing in her doltishness.

But what's this -- Millman as the center of attention? Millman speaking lines? Millman being given rather a large degree of responsibility? In the season premiere, we discover that Millman has somehow landed a BBC sitcom of his own, "When the Whistle Blows," which is set in a workplace as his "Office" was, but grovels far more obviously and desperately for laughs. "Sheer idiocy" would fairly accurately describe it.

As in the first season, Gervais and Merchant (who plays Millman's slimy and lazy agent -- slimy and lazy even for an agent) have managed to entice an eclectic array of sparkling guest stars to appear as themselves. They don't get to be glamorized versions of themselves, either; instead, the portrayals tend to be either moderately or incredibly unflattering.

Orlando Bloom is tonight's guest victim, and he gets off fairly easily, playing a vain and needy egomaniac, the kind one expects actors to be. He's so insecure under a facade of security that it drives him up the wall when Maggie resists his romantic overtures, such as they are. It's not that she doesn't find him attractive; she's just so hopelessly obtuse that she fails to notice, first, that he's cute and second, that he's willing and eager to give her a tumble.

Millman, meanwhile, should be jumping for joy at the opportunity he's been handed, but he's too dense and neurotic for that. Instead, he whines and worries about stooping low and pandering. That involves wearing a curly wig and oversize glasses and spouting the would-be catchphrase (which he keeps denying is a catchphrase) "Are you 'avin' a laugh?"

The studio audience does 'av a laugh when it hears this, responding in the Pavlovian way, giving Millman the opportunity to make a transparent noble speech about compromise and integrity -- the sort of drivel that directors and writers spew on talk shows. Somehow, integrity is no match for cash.

In the second episode, Millman continues to wrestle with his conscience, and his conscience keeps losing without much of a fight. Although critics assail the character's series as "the worst sitcom of all time" and something that "makes you want to gouge out your own eyes," it lures more than 6 million viewers, an unhealthfully healthy showing.

At first delighted to be famous, then aghast, Millman is delighted again when he's admitted to a club's VIP section and seated within elbow-rubbing distance of David Bowie. But he has good cause to be aghast again; inspired by a brief chat with Millman, Bowie rushes to the piano and creates a song with lyrics that refer to a "chubby little loser," a "rotund joke," a "pathetic little fat man" and "the clown that no one laughs at" because "they all just wish he'd die."

The humor is cruel, but crueler to the Gervais character than to anyone else. In the third episode, "Extras" hits a mad and hilarious pinnacle -- actually more like twin peaks, with one plot involving Millman's altercation with a mentally retarded boy and his mother at a restaurant. The other plot has Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry Potter in the movies, attempting with awesome awkwardness to prove he's a man, even to the point of displaying a very saggy and baggy prophylactic hither and thither. The great Diana Rigg figures in this, hilariously.

Gervais rides "the edge" precariously but assuredly throughout this episode, taking even wilder risks than usual.

"Extras" lives up to expectations and to its own lunatic traditions. It is a pity that some of the dialogue is unintelligible because of the thick British accents and an unfortunate tendency to mumble -- with some cast members on the verge of ventriloquism, without appearing to move their lips.

One can't help but think of the Henry Higgins lament in "My Fair Lady": "Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?" But even this seeming drawback could be an advantage; it gives you an excuse to watch the episodes more than once.

No excuse, though, is needed. "Extras" remains a sneak attack on one's defenses and yet another roguish triumph for Gervais and his witting accomplices.

Rome (one hour) airs tonight at 9 on HBO, followed by Extras (30 minutes) at 10.

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