There's nothing particularly damning about the faint praise due "Empire," an ABC miniseries being scattered onto the air starting tonight and continuing over the next four Tuesdays. Yes, it is the sort of dopey hokum that Hollywood, in the heyday of the studio system, produced with much more pomp, dash and passion. By comparison, "Empire" comes up short in the writing, acting, production, cinematography and music departments.
But is any of that surprising? Was anyone expecting "Ben-Hur," or even "Quo Vadis"? We have to consider "Empire" in context, the context being that it's summer, the air lanes have been taken over mainly by reruns and reality shows, and "Empire" is the only new sword-and-sandal epic around. (HBO's lavish 12-part opus "Rome," expected to contain R-rated sex and violence, will arrive in late summer or early autumn.)
"Empire," premiering at 9 tonight on Channel 7 with two hour-long episodes back-to-back (the other four parts, each an hour, air at 10 p.m. Tuesdays through July 26), contains a few surprises, some good and some bad. Among the bad: There isn't one darn star in it, or very many familiar faces. Among the good: The story appears to be clomping along in traditional ways, bad guys persecuting, and sometimes beheading, good guys, when both subtly and shockingly, in Parts 3 and 4, the winds shift, vague images become sharp, and we see the protagonists in a new and clarifying light.
The bad guys start looking not so bad and the good downright despicable.
One more major factor in "Empire's" favor is that stories about the abuse of political power, even if they are banal, are never irrelevant -- and such a tale, one could easily argue, is particularly appropriate now. There are unsettling similarities between life in the Rome of 44 B.C. and life in the America of the 21st century A.D. The writers of "Empire" at first make it appear that in Rome, tyranny resides most threateningly in the legislative branch rather than, as is usually the case, the executive. The assassination of populist hero Julius Caesar is portrayed as merely the first step in a reactionary, antidemocratic campaign waged by ruthlessly ambitious members of the Senate.
Caesar had wanted to instigate major reforms throughout Roman society, reforms that involved the redistribution of wealth, property and, thus, power. The corrupt senators, living the privileged lives of a power elite, found Caesar's plan about as attractive as, say, the capital gains tax. Or having their eyelashes singed off, one by one, with a blowtorch.
Leading this troop are crafty Cassius, played menacingly by Michael Maloney, and that immortal coward Marc Antony, played as a kind of wimpy suburbanite by Vincent Regan. Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look, that's for sure, and has no compunction about issuing the order "Cut him to pieces" to the Roman guards with regard to a political foe, but sometimes lean and hungry looks can be deceptive. They can even conceal closet fatties.
Caesar's choice for a successor was his nephew Octavius, played by photogenic newcomer Santiago Cabrera. The actor -- and thus the character -- is, in the vernacular of our time, a major babe, and those viewers who, for whatever reason, might be rooting for Octavius to switch to a topless toga will get their wish, and along about the time of a big orgy at Antony's vast villa, too.
The orgy occurs at the end of the third installment and, for TV, it's a daringly decadent affair, replete with girl-on-girl action, sensuous noshing, a scantily clad tootsie who wriggles into the room as part of a giant fruit platter, and the wanton exchange of come-hither looks. For eager Octavius, a threesome begins exotically -- with two girls seducing him at the same time -- but ends with a mess of asps wriggling among the sheets.
Or could this seeming nightmare just be one of that scamp Antony's rascally practical jokes? Errr -- probably not.
Following Octavius all over Italy, supposedly to protect him, is Jonathan Cake as Tyrannus, the empire's most overwrought gladiator. Cake takes the, um, cookie as the most obnoxious cast member, his face contorted constantly in murkily motivated looks of anxiety, fear, suspicion and wariness. He's wearyingly wary, as a matter of fact -- a brooding and moody wimp who's a drag on whatever drama manages to emerge. You keep expecting Octavius to reprimand him -- "Lighten up, dude!" -- but he never does. Instead, Octavius often joins him in ponderous lamentation over the state of the world, or maybe over the price of gasoline.
The most recognizable cast member is the estimable Dennis Haysbert as Magonius -- played, as Haysbert plays most of his roles, with an imposingly dignified authority. Colm Feore isn't around very long as Julius Caesar but manages to register emphatically just the same -- Caesar as a kind of Hyannisport liberal, his wealth not blinding him to the plight of the downtrodden. Fiona Shaw, on the other hand, has a few nicely nasty moments as Antony's conniving wife, Fulvia.
"Empire" was executive-produced by the prolific team of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, and so it has a classiness and sense of substance missing from such attempted epics as the recent "Into the West" or the ludicrous "Hercules." Some filming was actually done in Italy, a bit of a novelty in itself; epics about ancient Rome are usually filmed in the Mideast or Spain or wherever else it can be done more cheaply.
There's little in the way of grandeur, and our first views of Rome make it look as though the entire city is built out of scrap lumber and chicken wire. One could say in the producers' defense that "Empire" is more an epic of ideas than of awesome sights or memorable action sequences, but the film is marred by vast amounts of gratuitous padding and very poorly photographed duels in seemingly dinky arenas.
During those encounters, the camera jiggles and jumps, bobs and weaves, swings and sways -- and the viewer tries to figure out whose sword just clanked whose shield and whose arm just sustained a nasty gash. The limitations of the genre combine with a less than auspicious cast to eventually do "Empire" in, but merely for trying to make a respectable spectacle, the producers themselves deserve a couple of those "hails" that are forever being sent Caesar's way.
Empire begins at 9 tonight on Channel 7 with two one-hour episodes, with subsequent one-hour installments at 10 p.m. Tuesdays through July 26.