Given the state of British television today - endless 'reality' shows and the sort of 'quality' that means amateur pap like Doctor Who can be confident of winning each and every television drama award going - one would have expected far more favourable press. So how on earth did things go wrong? And how could the series have been as misrepresented as it has been, promoted everywhere as 'pornography and violence packaged to be transmitted as a degenerate soap'?
The BBC need to take the biggest share of the blame. Despite spending 15 million dollars of tax payers money on the series, they decided to edit down the first three episodes into a single double-episode which lost, according to most reports, 50 minutes of character development and plot. Worse, when bombarded with complaints from those who spotted the discrepancies between the original HBO transmission times in the States and those here in old Blighty, they tried to justify this monumentally stupid decision with a disingenious statement to the effect that Europeans knew most of Rome's history and hence didn't need the explanations that their American counterparts did. Director Michael Apted gave a particularly scathing interview with The Sunday Times on how the BBC had completely ruined his work, leaving in the sex at the expense of the real story when taking their hatchet blade to the series.And he was right to. Many of us hark back to wonderful series like The Jewel in the Crown or Brideshead Revisited and despair at DVD commentaries that explain such series could never be made today with the current state of the television industry, and its obsession with making profit and playing it safe. So finally along comes a series that IS made today, IS given the lofty budget and talent it needs, and isn't too far from those lofty classics (it's not quite as well scripted, truth be told) and the press ridicule it??!!? Someone at the BBC should have lost their job over this!
OK, I've had my rant. Let's get back to the DVD...
The back-story to the series is essentially the story of Caeser's rivalry with Pompeii, and as the series progresses it moves on through Caeser's affair with Cleopatra, ending with Caesar's 'Et tu Brute' assassination at the Senate. This story is told with the depth, historical accuracy, and lavish sets one would expect from an expensive high-profile BBC production, with a clever 'soap'-like way into the whole thing, using two lead characters - soldiers in Caeser's army - as the focus of the main story. These two soldiers, initially bitter enemies, but soon firm friends somehow seem to become involved in all the major events, and stretch believability a bit too far at times, but when the sets, the acting (from the creme de la creme of the British acting world) and the direction are this good, I can forgive the odd 'suspension of disbelief' requirements that may occur from time to time. Titus Pollo, played by Ray Stevens, is the 'football hooligan' of the two friends - brash, impulsive, and a constant womaniser - where his commander and friend, Lucius Vorunus, played by Kevin McKidd, is a fiercely moral, loyal, family man whose superior manner frequently borders on the sanctimonious. These two leads are excellent, sexy (always a help!), and are backed up by a cast to die for (too many big names to list here). Most importantly of all, this is a drama that is really given time to breathe - which, of course, means that many of the MTV attention-deficit-disorder-generation critics have complained that the opening episodes are too slow. Well duh, you can't just introduce a core cast of characters that runs into the teens in a fast, five minute edit! To reveal more about the story would be to spoil things, but suffice to say that despite the well-known back story this is a series well worth the 11 hours of your time it will take to view all twelve episodes. Perhaps the series biggest weakness is that in its desire to be as authentic as possible with regard to the sexual moires of the time, it's too explicit with the violence and sex to make it suitable for children or a family audience - the very people who would probably benefit most from the gripping story about our history that it has to tell.
The DVD release is rather expensive given that it's really a half-season when compared to most TV series. Don't be fooled by the 'six disks' boast - this is a four-disk set, artifically spun out to make it look more impressive than it is. The first two disks contain three episodes each, then suddenly we're down to two 50 minute episodes a disk, so that three disks rather than two are artifically needed to complete the series. The sixth disk is an 'extra's disk, but it contains just two 25-minute extra's that could easily have been included on any of the other disks. So the DVD set loses a mark on the value-for-money front, only to regain it for the lavishness of its presentation.
An included fold-out booklet shows the main characters and their background, but is disgustingly flimsy, seemingly reprinted on recycled newspaper, and seems an odd choice given the luxury inherent in the rest of the package. The main digipack holding the six disks is lavish, and presented in a solid mylar case that oozes class. No cheap cardboard here, unless you count the sleeve that wraps the whole thing, foolishly hiding the treasures that lie underneath.
The DVD transfer is exemplary (I believe the series was shot on High Definition), and it's a refreshing change to see that even the DVD extra's are presented in anamorphic wide-screen instead of the usual squeezed 4:3 ratio. Commentary tracks tend to focus on the historical accuracy of the series rather than celebrity gossip, and give fascinating background stories about Roman society, but there are long pauses and the episodes which opt instead for an 'on screen text' history show that this is a better way of presenting the same information. The two '25 minute' making ofs are about the right length, giving a tour of all the different departments - rather like a tour of the different Weta departments as given on the Lord of the Rings DVD sets, but edited down into a more reasonable length. The truth is that there is only so much time one can waffle on about the attention to detail, pad out the 'behind the scenes' clips of the actors, and document the model department without it becoming like every other DVD extra that's already been produced.
Rome is much better than the critics would have you believe, and on DVD presented in a far better light than the mess that constituted the original BBC broadcasts. A second series has been announced, although this is largely down to contractual commitments HBO had to make when green lighting the series, based on the huge costs of the sets which need to be recouped somehow. This has upset a lot of Deadwood fans in particular, annoyed that their own show, which many believe to be a better series, has had to be cancelled because of HBO's need to recover costs incurred in building the massive sets needed to get the first season of Rome made. Personally I'm very much looking forward to a second series, although based on this first season's outing on DVD, I'll be waiting for the boxed set rather than wathing it on British TV.