Family dysfunction. Treachery. Betrayal. Coarse profanity. Brutal violence. Graphic (and sometimes brutal) sex. No, it's not The Sopranos
, it's Rome
, HBO's madly ambitious series that transfixed viewers with its lavishly mounted spectacle and human dramas of the historical figures and fictional characters. Set in 52 B.C., Rome charts the dramatic shifts in the balance of power between former friends Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham), leader of the Senate, and Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds), whose imminent return after eight years to Rome after conquering the Gauls, has the ruling class up in arms. At the heart of Rome is the odd couple friendship between two soldiers who fortuitously become heroes of the people. Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) is married, honorable, and steadfast. Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) is an amoral rogue whose philosophy is best summed up, "I kill my enemies, take their gold, and enjoy their women." Among Rome's most compelling subplots is Lucius's strained relationship with his wife, Niobe (Indira Varma), who is surprised to see her husband alive (but not as surprised as he is to find her upon his homecoming with a newborn baby in her arms!). Any viewer befuddlement over Rome's intrigues and machinations, and determining who is hero and who is foe, disappears the minute Golden Globe-nominee Polly Walker appears as Atia, Caesar's formidable niece and a villainess for the ages. In the first episode alone, she offers her already married daughter as a bride to the recently widowed Pompey, and the viewer eagerly awaits to see what (or who) she'll do next.
Season 2 begins in the wake of Julius Caesar's assassination, and charts the power struggle to fill his sandals between "vulgar beast" Mark Antony (James Purefoy) and "clever boy" Octavian (Simon Woods), who is surprisingly named Caesar's sole heir. The series' most compelling relationship is between fellow soldiers and unlikely friends, the honorable Lucius Vorenus and Titus "Violence is the only trade I know" Pullo, who somewhat reverse roles when Vorenus is overcome with grief in the wake of his wife's suicide. Season 2 considerably ups the ante in the rivalry between Atia, who is Antony's mistress, and Servilia (Lindsay Duncan) with attempted poisonings and sickening torture. Another gripping subplot is Vorenus's estrangement from his children, who, at the climax of the season opener are presumed slaughtered, but whose true fate may be even more devastating to the father who cursed them.
Rome is a painstakingly mounted production that earned well-deserved Emmy nominations in such categories as costumes, set design, and art direction. In writing Rome's epitaph, we come to praise this series, not to bury it. Although two seasons was not enough to establish a Rome empire, it stands as one of HBO's crowning achievements. --Donald Liebenson
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