Debuts Tuesday at 9 p.m. on ABC; regular time is Tuesdays at 10 p.m.
The tagline you'll never see: Shaky history lesson. Solid entertainment.
The basics: The year is 44 B.C., and all is not well in the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar (Colm Feore) lords over a dissatisfied and restless republic, while a corrupt Senate thinks its leader has grown too big for his britches. But you can't simply vote a guy like Caesar out of office -- so the senators take matters into their own hands with a little group stabbing (filmed wonderfully in dramatic slow motion). Then the gang sets its sights on Caesar's nephew and heir apparent, Octavius (Santiago Cabrera), a lad who's had his share of ladies but has never engaged in battle. In other words: He's a lover, not a fighter. Enter Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake), a fictitious muscled gladiator, who had promised Caesar that he would protect young Octavius at all costs. Octavius and Tyrannus get the heck out of Rome, and the gladiator trains his protege in the art of war.
The lowdown: It's a minor miracle that "Empire" made it to the little screen at all. The production was plagued with budget cutbacks (ABC ultimately cut the series from eight to six hours), work stoppages and a massive fire last summer that destroyed the set. "Empire" producers also clashed with those from HBO's own Roman Empire series, debuting this fall, which was filming on location in Rome at the same time. Most damning for the series, however, is that the public's appetite for ancient dramas seems to have been sated. "Gladiator" conquered Hollywood in 2000, but more recent movies such as "Troy" and "Alexander the Great" have flopped at the box office.
Reality check: Despite the budget cuts, ABC still managed to drop a cool $30 million on "Empire" -- and it shows. Lusciously filmed in Rome, the series isn't afraid to show off Italy's beauty whenever it can. But beyond its lavish scenery, the miniseries is wonderfully acted by a cast of actors who are far from being household names. A glance at their credits shows they are well-versed in performing ancient dramas, be they on stage or in film. Oh, and there also are some darn good swordfights -- three in the first hour alone.
-- John Maynard