Friday, March 30, 2007

Rome If You Want To, Rome Around the World

The season, and I believe series finale of HBO's Rome last Sunday marks the end of another high-quality TV series, but in this instance one that ultimately proved to be disappointing. In this second season, the series seemed to lose its focus, and the final victory of Octavian, following the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, struck me as pointless. Certainly, there was more to work with in the first season with the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, and the parallel rise and fall of the fictional character of Vorenus, but part of the problem is that Rome shied away from the classic treatment of Antony and Cleopatra as a story of doomed love, opting instead for a largely unsympathetic portrayal of a drug-addled Antony and a manipulative and deceitful Queen of the Nile. Octavian in the first season stood out as a boy who was smarter than most of the adults surrounding him, and this portrayal continued into the beginning of the second season--for example, the conflict between the clever youth and the brutish Antony, not to mention between the boy and his mother who sided with her lover Antony, was very effective. But early in the second season Rome gave us an abrupt transition from Octavian the boy into Octavian a young adult, played by a different actor in a very cold, lifeless way, and the character lost all of his charm. But the main problem is that, at the end of it all, I for one am left with a sense of the senselessness of it all. What's the point? Octavian does not seem to lust for power, but he acts as if he does. What is his motivation? The portrayal of Roman society seems, to me, to emphasize its distance from our own, rather than its points of intersection--no doubt this is why the second Star Wars trilogy, which is based, in part, on the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire--but also on the similar transition from Wiemar Republic to Nazi Germany--has left fans cold in contrast to the very American theme of rebels vs. the evil empire in the first series--ever notice how most of the bad guys have British accents?). There is none of the traditional classicist's sensibility that the human condition remains largely unchanged over the millennia, and therefore that there is much that we can learn from ancient Greece and Rome. Instead, we find a brutish, violent, perverse, and all but lawless society, not at all conducive to sympathy, let alone empathy. Thank God they're gone!

There was an intriguing subplot involving Jewish characters in Rome, assimilation vs. the reclamation of heritage and rebellion against Rome, a missed opportunity to assassinate Herod, and conflict among brothers as a kind of Cain and Abel parable, but it never went anywhere.

Much was made of the women of Rome, who were indeed highlighted in the series. But again, to what end? What was the message? Seems to me, basically, that the women had the power to really mess things up for the men, and basically ruin their lives. Remove the women from the storyline, and all conflicts would have been resolved fairly easily. I'm not saying this is reality, mind you, just the impression that I believe the program is giving off.

Apart from the women, history seems to turn on minor points, passing personality conflicts, and chance of the moment accident in the series. And of course that is one way to view history, but then, what's the point of the narrative? It would have to be merely to show us compelling characters, a People-like orientation (Suetonius rather than Plutarch), which Rome is only partially successful at doing.

I read that the creators of Rome hoped to have a third season to tell their story, and when that was not approved they felt obliged to compress events. Clearly that's part of the problem, as the second season seems hurried, plot lines are left hanging or resolved too suddenly, and all focus is lost in the rush to get us to the end point of Octavian's triumph.

The opening credits show us walls covered with graffiti, and in one behind the scenes mini-documentary, the creators emphasize that graffiti was a major communication medium in ancient Rome, and that they covered the walls with it in the outdoor scenes in the series. And graffiti plays a role at the beginning of the first season, where images of Julius Caesar committing adultery with Servilia force Caesar to break off their affair. Unfortunately, graffiti fades into the background after this, and never plays much of a role again. This is really too bad, because I think you could say that graffiti served as the blogs of ancient Rome. Yes, there was the recurring image of the news reader, announcing the official news of the rulers of Rome, and yes, it was a magnificent bit to include (I would love to see someone string together all of the news reader scenes from the two episodes so that they stand on their own). But that was to contemporary journalism as graffiti on the walls was to our blogosphere (note the use of the graffiti term of "tag" for labels or categories of uploads on other services such as YouTube and Flickr).

Rome could have been a prequel to The Sopranos (the subject of one of my first posts), maybe they thought it was too obvious, but it would have given the creators a great deal to work with (in one of the first episodes of The Sopranos, a Hasidic Jew who also was on the shady side is being beat up by Tony Soprano and his henchmen, and defies them, saying that the Jews have survived everything over the centuries, look at the Romans, where are they now? And Tony tells him that they, meaning his mafia, are the Romans).

In any event, let's hope that Rome doesn't signal the decline and fall of the HBO empire.

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