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A review of the new HBO series
(and parting words for HBO’s
“Six Feet Under”) by Gary Chew


GARY CHEW/Sacramento

Most of us have seen our share of Roman epics, either on the stage, screen or both. Many Romans lived such dynamic lives and made such indelible history over such a long period that it’s difficult to ignore them, even now after all that’s been said and done to recreate those years of tumult.

Home Box Office and the BBC have joined creative forces to mount what may well be the largest, most complex and colorful onscreen production of ancient Rome.

The first of the twelve episodes will air on HBO Sunday evening, August 28th. I’ve seen the first three episodes, so here’s how “Rome” seems to me…the first quarter that is.

(Speaking in sports vernacular at this point may be appropriate to make the point.)

Everyone knows there’s no fun in watching a football game if it’s not clear who the players are. That can also be said of “Rome.” So, if you have time, I suggest going to the HBO web site before seeing the first installment and looking for the page showing the cast. There are twelve photos of the major players in this ancient Roman game…not eleven. The characters are listed alongside the real names of the all British cast. Some of the actors look a little bit alike. And most of them are not exceedingly familiar to your average U.S. HBO viewer.

Atia of the Julii (Polly Walker) with Mark Antony (James Pure)

Atia of the Julii (Polly Walker) with Mark Antony (James Purefoy)

Get to know them by sight and also by their relationship to the other characters. For example: know that Polly Walker plays Atia of the Julii who is the niece of Gaius Julius Caesar. She’s also the mother of Gaius Octavian, who is played by Max Pirkis. Oh yes, Gaius Julius Caesar is played by Ciaran Hinds (Finn McGovern in “Road to Perdition”). Ms. Walker was Annette in “Patriot Games” and young Pirkis was cast as Blakeney in “Master and Commander.”

Another layer to consider in this series are the characters who's actions aren't historically accurate, although they did exist. They're the principals of "Rome": Lucius Vorenus, played by Kevin McKidd (Tommy in "Trainspotting") and Titus Pullo, played by Ray Stevenson (Dagonet in "King Arthur).

Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo
Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) and Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd)

Although all are fine actors---some well-seasoned--- most are listed five or six characters down in the credits of other films they’ve done. You’ll have to--- sort of---get to know them.

Lucius and Titus are foot soldiers in Caesar’s 13th Legion, all of whom are on return (in episode one) to Rome after eight years of war in Caesar’s successful conquest of Gaul. The series sets up with tension between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham): Caesar, the returning hero with his plunder-laden, battle-hardened men and populist agenda for radical social change; and Pompey, elder leader of the elite, aristocratic, ruling minority.

Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham)
Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham) prepares to kick some ass

The fictional characters of “Rome” look to be the pivotal, unseen forces unknowingly at play in the shadows of the historical figures. These characters of fantasy will likely bring the narrative down to the more personal, up close emotions of everyday life (where more creative license will be taken) while the great oratory and conflict of the times will be the meat and potatoes of those who really took part in the machinations of Rome’s fall.

Not for youngsters? Yes! “Rome” isn’t for them. The violence is cruel and bloody. There’s a good deal of nudity and soft core sex. The dialogue gets rather edgy at times with some words spoken not really in the Roman lexicon of the time. And relationships between real and imagined figures are, from time to time, downright unsavory. (You do remember “I, Claudius”?)

But, it’s always been clear that there’s no way to accurately depict Rome’s deterioration from republic to empire without blood, betrayal and decadence. But it’s done on such a colorful, realistic and grandiose scale. Moreover, HBO has been airing a short production about set construction and costumes and props crafted for the program’s detailed authenticity. In a city of the same name, “Rome” has been shot on elaborate sets mostly on five acres of Cinecittà Studio real estate.

The screening videos I saw of “Rome” didn't have the final music on the soundtrack. We get to hear that when the first episode airs. But this is another aspect of the series which might really sparkle considering previous scores that came in earlier films of the genre: Miklos Rosza, Alfred Newman and Alex North, to mention only three composers who wrote memorable film music for that period.

Although the Romans loom large in history, the new series has very large shoes to fill on the Sunday evening schedule, for HBO has rolled a deep six for its outstanding original series, “Six Feet Under.”

I did a radio review in Sacramento for “Six Feet Under” a couple of years ago, but have never really gotten my teeth into the show on this web site. With its passing, I’d like to say a few parting words about the Fisher family and the people who created and crafted this unforgettable television series.

First let me say, I’ve felt since the second season of the “Six Feet Under” five year run, entertainment awards people in La La Land have been turning their backs on this program. From time to time, I’ve read how critics thought the series was trying too hard, or that the writing was just concocted to overwhelm viewers.

I’ve been watching television drama and comedy for more than a half century, and I’ve never seen anything to match the absolute honesty about this thing we call living…and dying… as depicted on “Six Feet Under.” Anyone who interprets the primary motive of this series as simply to shock and awe for the sake of getting viewers has not yet experienced some of life’s tougher moments, or is in denial about the tough stuff that’s already occurred in his or her life.

Alan Ball

Alan Ball

Series creator Alan Ball and his staff of writers have taken us on an unflinching journey through just about everything that can be thrown at human beings, whether it be tragedy or the simple/complex and tender/hurtful fun of living and loving in the early 21st century. If Ball & Company are overlooked again at future award ceremonies for this final season, one can only determine that “Six Feet Under” is too over the plate and deep in the pocket. Too tough to handle, emotionally? Please!

That goes as well for every actor who has played on the “Six Feet Under” set. I envy them all for the experience this series surely has been for them. I’m keeping an eye out for what kinds of projects these fine actors go onto. I wish them the very best. They’ve certainly given us some of their very best.

And to Alan Ball & Company: don’t stop what you’ve been doing since “American Beauty.” The truth needs to be spoken in at least some of our entertainment.

"Rome" official site at HBO (with video clips).

As of 8/23, this review is one of two at the IMDb.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2005, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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