Rome: The Complete First Season

Rome: The Complete First Season
If you needed any proof that TV has completely surpassed Hollywood, look no further than this HBO/BBC co-venture. With all the production values that accompany multi-million dollar films, including lavish scenes using 500 extras, lush costumes, huge sets and tasteful special effects, Rome creates a fantastically vivid world yet, like most of the best HBO series (who rely on the same pool of directors), it relies on old-fashioned values like quality acting from non-marquee names and narrative complexity over a 12-episode story arc. Set just before the fall of Julius Caesar (you don’t have to be a scholar or a Shakespearean to know how this story ends), Rome immerses the viewer in the politics, social mores and customs of the time without ever talking down to its audience. From Gaul to Greece to Egypt, Rome splits its focus between known historical figures and two soldiers whose fates are tied to Caesar’s. High political drama is balanced with plenty of beheadings, incest and even some trepanation. There’s also a healthy dose of trashy soap opera in the family squabbles, which despite the graphic nature always serves the story instead of the sensational. In case you do get lost, the DVD features not only a helpful character booklet that helps you get through the dense early episodes but also a Pop Up Video style function that provides helpful context. The show’s enthusiastic historical consultant also sits in on most of the commentaries. An emphasis on accuracy, such as the muddy urban slum that is much of Rome’s backstreets, is a welcome antidote to traditional Hollywood portrayals of the ancient city. But at the heart of the show are the moral quandaries. Like The Sopranos, no one here is a hero. Every protagonist has slaves and kills enemies at will, making their crises of conscience a bit confusing, but the show makes no attempt to impose modern correctness on the pre-Judeo-Christian mores of the day. Tyranny takes many forms, compassion is a weakness, might makes right and religion and morality are mutually exclusive. Plenty of parallels to everything from modern day America to the Nuremberg rally are apparent but unlike, say, Battlestar Galactic, allegory is not the point here. This history is rich enough as it is. Other extras: eight commentaries, two 20-minute documentaries on the making of the series and historical Rome, two 20-minute documentaries on the creation of two pivotal scenes, a ten-minute documentary on the historical characters of the series. (HBO/Warner)