These days, it appears that HBO is eating the other major TV networks for breakfast. I mean, this is the channel that offers the satiric Entourage, the Spanish-language serial killer thriller, Epitafios, as well as three of the best comedies on television (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Extras, The Comeback...). HBO is also the only channel bolstering scorching period pieces such as the Western Deadwood and this series, the lush and sumptuous Rome.
One of the best elements of Rome, if you forgive me for stating this so bluntly, is that it's not only extremely dramatic and compelling; it's also a rampant, over-the-top sex fest. Everybody is having sex with everyone here...and wow, like who wouldn't enjoy seeing that? ! Let's see, there's sex used as a weapon, as a power-play (between Cleopatra and Caesar); hot lesbian sex (Servilla and Octavia), incestuous sex (Octavia and Octavius), good old-fashioned married sex (mmm...married sex....) between Niobe and Vorenus, slave/master sex involving Pullo and his girl, and inter-class sex between the scheming noble woman, Atia and her underling, Timon. It would be tempting to say that there's so much sex going on in this series that you'll forget the details of the complex plot, but that's not likely. Rome is brilliantly scripted and the sex (often involving such lovely women as Kama Sutra's Indira Varma and Sliver's Polly Walker...) is only one piece of the impressive tapestry.
Rome is the story of Julius Caesar's rise to power. The series opens in Gaul, where Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) has been conquering barbarians for years and is ready to make a triumphant journey home. Meanwhile, back in Rome, Pompey (Hellbound's Dr. Channard, Kenneth Cranham) and many of the Senators fear that Julius has become so popular with the common man that he will seize power and turn the Republic into an Empire. Their fears are justified, and before long, Caesar crosses the Rubicon to take his place as Rome's only pro-counsel. The series follows the conflict between Pompey and Caesar from Rome to Greece to Egypt, and there are a few splendid battle sequences, though actual warfare is not the series' point. To the contrary, social warfare is the order of the day, as Caesar's family, led by the scheming Atia, seeks to dominate Roman city life at the expense of...everybody else.
What's truly exciting about Rome, besides the sex and the incredible production design (and by the way -- you feel that you are really there, living in that time) is that the series often adopts the viewpoint of two average joes, two low-ranking Roman soldiers trying to make their way in the cruel world. Vorenus and Pullo are these Roman "everymen," and their experiences contrast effectively with those of consuls, queens, senators and nobles. Vorenus and Pullo keep the series grounded, and illuminate what daily life must have been like in Rome all those years ago. They're also funny as hell, going from battlefield to business; traveling from land to land; being shipwrecked and even having interludes with Cleopatra.
Rome will be back for a second season; and I'm still working my way through the first season. At this point, Caesar has mastered all of Egypt (and romanced the manipulative Cleopatra), vanquished his Roman enemies (Cato and Scipio) and now stands astride the world.
How long before the tide turns? Only the producers and writers on this series know for sure. But I'll definitely be tuning in. I heard that HBO is canceling Rome after the second season, to which I can only say: Et tu, HBO? Sometimes even smart channels do stupid things, I guess...