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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
February 9, 2007

Evenings Out

The ancient feast returns

‘Rome’ is back for a second season, and the first can still be seen

A couple of years ago, HBO and the BBC began one of the most lavish and intriguing shows in recent memory. Rome, winner of four Emmys and made at an initial cost of $100 million, delved into the machinations of the long-lost empire, which has so many resonances to the American one today.

That period piece was great at so many levels and now, almost two years later Rome is back for its second, and sadly, last season. HBO marches to the beat of its own drums, so it can do whatever it wants. But for diehard Rome fans, this is the last chance to dig in and feast on the visual and acting orgy that this show is.

At the end of the first series--as a refresher for fans--Caesar is dead, felled by assassins’ knives in the Roman forum. Lucius Vorenus, a slave turned nobleman, stands on the brink of madness after the death of his wife Niobe. A brutal power struggle for control of the empire is about to let all hell loose with major players like Brutus, Antony and Cleopatra all getting themselves into the fray.

Most of the original bevy of traitors, manipulators and hungry suitors are back this season with the show’s unadulterated commitment to lust and violence, sex and nudity that defined the history of Rome. Among the vivid cast of characters returning are Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd), Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), Atia (Polly Walker), Mark Antony (James Purefoy), Brutus (Tobias Menzies), Servilia (Lindsay Duncan), Octavian (Max Pirkis) and Octavia (Kerry Condon). This is as fine a cast as has been assembled for a television show in a long time.

In the second season, things have heated up rapidly with the two deaths of Caesar and Niobe framing the plot. Meanwhile Atia, Mark Antony’s lover--with one eye always on her power--realizes that her son Octavian, whom Caesar has willed as his heir, is now the richest man in the land. This annoys Antony and the rift between his mistress’ son and himself is the stuff of great drama.

Octavian’s sister Octavia is also acquiring her fair share of enemies. Whether her lesbian affair with Atia’s rival Servilia continues this season remains to be seen.

As though this were not enough, Cleopatra enters the narrative and cozies up to Antony, drawing Atia’s ire.

And there is no one in Rome worse to cross than Atia, who in the past season has shown that sex and violence were not simply the domain of Roman men.

The second show has its work cut out as it tries to cram a lot of history, not to mention sex and violence, into ten episodes. Nevertheless, because of the feisty writing, undaunted directing and ferocious performances, Rome will be one of the most memorable series of this year.

Alan Poul, executive producer of HBO’s long-running and multiple award-winning Six Feet Under, returns to direct several of this season’s Rome episodes as he had for the first one. The out Poul came to prominence producing the three miniseries based on Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. Poul, a former member of the board of directors of GLAAD, has received an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a Producer’s Guild Award, four GLAAD Awards, three Peabody Awards and the 2003 ACLU Foundation’s Pride Partnership Award. His taste in television has always been impeccable and in Rome he continues that winning streak.

Brit hunk and brilliant actor James Purefoy, who plays Marc Antony to the hilt with gushing sensuality and inimitable charm, created a bit of stir about his sexuality late last year in an interview with Out magazine. Purefoy told the publication that while he’s straight, he will “never say never” when it comes to having sex with a man.

“Anyone who went to an English [private] school in the 1970s will have had some kind of a gay experience,” he said. “You bang 500 adolescent hormonal boys together at exactly the time when they’re exploring their sexuality, and don’t be surprised if some shenanigan comes out of it.”

That is also much of the attitude of the show to issues of sexuality--nonchalant and open. The show has not shied away from depicting the historically accurate eunuchs who were a force to reckon with in the machinations of the empire. Last season when Octavian was taken to an establishment to lose his virginity, he was offered up both men and women for his choice, no judgment, no off-camera titters. And Octavia and Servilia’s intergenerational lesbian love affair was treated with dignified lust and true passion.

Rome, not to state the obvious, has many echoes to the recent events in American culture and history. The lust for violence, the need for empire, and the many excesses are gloriously reflected in the ancient mirror that is Rome. What we learn from history is up to us; that is, while we still have the chance.

With three HBO gay faves soon gone--Six Feet Under ended last year with an earlier demise for Sex and the City--it will be interesting to see what the best television house in the country will have to offer next for its LGBT fans.

Reruns and DVDs

While Rome’s second season is already airing, early episodes are being played continuously. Check local listings for show times for new episodes and repeats.

HBO has also released the first season on DVD. A gorgeously packaged set, it is worth every penny, for diehard fans of the show and for historical buffs. Not that the show ever comes across as anything found on the History Channel--much of it is fiction--but it is an interesting look into the past, replete with lavish production values and head-turning performances all around.

The 12 episodes of Rome Season 1 of are predominantly focused on Julius Caesar, although there are enough other primary and secondary characters to keep your head spinning.

For instance, we follow two brutish yet lovable members of the 13th Legion: Centurion Lucius Vorenus and his loyal yet volatile Legionnaire Titus Pullo. Vorenus’ ravishing wife Niobe (Indira Varma) causes him much jealousy and rage and that is one of the more powerful subplots in the first series.

There’s Servilia, Caesar’s mistress, and the mother of Brutus, who is dumped by the patriarch when pornographic graffiti depicting the couple appear on walls in the vicinity of the Forum. Servilia reverts to voodoo in the temple, laying a hellish curse on her fickle lover. But wait, it is Atia behind the lewd graffiti.

Whether Servilia’s love affair with Atia’s daughter Octavia is partly out of revenge against Atia is left ambiguous and provides for many of the best scenes between women--in both rage and passion--in the series.

Season One also makes a well-depicted foray into Egypt where the young and volatile Cleopatra is introduced to Caesar. The strange and precarious alliance between Rome and Egypt provides interesting grist for the mill of the second half of the first season.

The climax of the first season is the brutal--and some would say inevitable and necessary--assassination of Caesar leaving the history of Rome wide open. This is where the current season picks up.

The acting in the first season is impeccable as are the true-to-life settings of the buildings and overall milieu of that ancient, yet presciently modern place.

As Caesar, Ciaran Hinds brings a lusty yet restrained power to the role. Despite all his lewd acts, his mind boggling machinations and manipulations, Caesar comes across as a sympathetic man, a product of his times, a victim of history.

This is as fine a cast as has been assembled for a television show in a long time, matched by the fine directing including that of Alan Poul from Six Feet Under and another out director, Jeremy Podeswa.

Rome is one of the series so packed with everything that it requires another viewing and the first DVD set allows for just that with many extras to boot including episode commentaries, behind-the-scenes footage and making-of features which are fascinating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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