HBO’s Rome is good TV. It’s not particularly deep, but it’s fun to watch, and it’s got great production values, cinematic direction and some fine performances. It’s diminished, however, simply by virtue of the network it’s on. If it appeared on a different channel, any channel, it would surely be considered one of its best shows. But on HBO, it has to compete with Deadwood, The Wire, The Sopranos and even young upstart Big Love. In comparison, Rome seems almost sophomoric—a high gloss soap opera.
HBO’s great series almost always take a worn-out genre and blow it up, following the template of The Sopranos, which hit familiar mob story plot points but did so more slowly and meticulously than other televised attempts at same. From there, HBO tackled Westerns and cop dramas and family soaps. Rome initially promised to be a nasty takeoff on swords-and-sandals epics, a chance to examine the lurid reality of Roman society around the time of Julius Caesar’s reign, but the series has settled into a less ambitious groove; it seems content merely to exemplify its genre rather than reinvent it. Cecil B. DeMille movies made Bible stories more palatable by mixing in liberal doses of sex and violence; Rome just ups the ante a bit and shows them full-on. There’s a vague and somewhat obligatory-seeming attempt to define the sex and violence as outgrowths of the era’s politics (Polly Walker’s Atia is constantly sleeping with men who will give her the greatest political boost), but for the most part, these elements serve the same function as in DeMille’s films: Look at how much sex there was in ancient Rome! And how much violence!
None of this wantonness resonates as strongly as the filmmakers might wish because it’s rooted in characters who are not often sketched beyond a handful of traits: loyal-to-a-fault Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), constantly scheming Atia, burgeoning-man-of-the-people Gaius Octavian (Max Pirkis, as the boy who would be Augustus Caesar). The characters scheme to get ahead and rise in their particular circles (or, in Pullo’s case, to get the woman he wants), but we never feel that these motivations come from a distinct place for each character. Contrast this with Deadwood, where all of the characters (or most) are similarly scheming to land themselves the best place in their incipient civilization, but go about this through very different means and operate from very different motivations. Any given episode of Rome eventually devolves into a long series of betrayals and political tricks, briefly punctuated by sex or nicely choreographed mayhem (the gladiatorial combat in season one’s penultimate episode juiced the storylines so effectively that it almost singlehandedly justified the entire season). This formula become more obvious in season two, where most of the characters are isolated from each other, aiming to put themselves in the best possible position after the murder of Caesar (Ciarán Hinds).
Caesar, while not the show’s lead character by any means, acted as a hub for Rome’s huge cast; all of the storylines intersected through him, and Hinds played the part with a benevolent arrogance that made it easy to believe that Caesar was both beloved by the people and an enemy of their freedoms. His murder became a grim necessity, but you were sad to see him go, simply because his scenes were often the most compelling thing in any given episode. Sure enough, season two suffers from not having that strong center. The show bounces manically from setting to setting; it’s often hard to pin down just what one scene has to do with another. Again, contrast this with Deadwood where the cast was even more populous, but a handful of main locations and characters (particularly Al Swearengen) persisted throughout the series run, and gave viewers some narrative anchors.
Another problem is Rome’s preference for compressing events that occured over years into a handful of episodes. Season one took place over seven years, but it felt if the story unfolded over a few weeks (three or four months at the most). There are cues to signify how much time has passed, but the series rarely makes a serious effort to show how the march of time has affected its characters (or simply can’t, in the case of Pirkis and the other younger actors). Events are conflated so hilariously that Rome often seems like an afternoon soap with Gladiator-level production values. Cheating spouses! Hidden diseases! Betrayal and murder! There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach except that it makes the series’s pretense of realism harder to buy.
Finally, the dialogue is too on-the-nose. There’s some nice, poetic writing on occasion, but the characters rarely leave anything to subtext. They’re always saying exactly what they think, or offering us exposition on what’s happened in the months-long interim between episodes, or pointing out the obvious. (Reprimanding her son Octavian for alienating Mark Antony, Atia says, “Don’t you see we’re dependent on Antony now? Who will protect us if you drive him away from me?”) On Deadwood or The Wire, characters usually say much less than you expect or else much more—sometimes talking around the subject so as to define it without offending a social superior. Rome’s characters feel more like human chess pieces given little speeches to read, then shoved around into place by the writers before the next plot point glides into view.
There’s still a lot to like about Rome. It’s got a refreshing lack of politically correct anachronism (the slaves are slaves and are treated as such, and the women have no hope of meting out their political will); this helps the series keep its winking asides to the modern day from becoming too overt or self-satisfied. The production design is among the best on television, and the direction (by such varied hands as Michael Apted and Alan Taylor) is vivid, often rising above the TV norm. Another, more recent positive development: the series also appears to be building to the rise of Augustus. If there’s a figure in Roman history that could unite the numerous plotlines as effectively as the original Caesar, it’s the new Caesar. But in spite of its oft-apparent potential, the series rarely rises above the pretty good. There’s a brilliant show to be made about the hubris of a civilization that thinks it cannot fall; Rome isn’t it.
The Naked Trucker and T-Bones Show on Comedy Central is pretty dumb. As with all shows of this type (loosely connected sketches tied to a central monologue delivered by two characters), it’s pretty uneven. But its deliberately low-fi sensibilities (at times it seems like a comic monologue surrounding a series of YouTube videos) make it oddly charming. It’s very much a show finding its way, and more jokes miss than hit their marks, but Naked Trucker (Dave Allen) and T-Bones (David Koechner) are disarming enough to make this slyly enjoyable.
The conceit is that Trucker and T-Bones travel the country and tell us stories about their journeys. Hence the episode airing tonight involves a voyage to Vermont that features Andy Richter (in fake mustache and silly hat) as a mayor that gives T-Bones the key to his city (or maybe he’s not the mayor after all…). The two also sing songs, recount their adventures with hitchhikers, and show us footage from the truck as they travel around. It’s, as mentioned, dumb, and Koechner’s whiny character can grate on the nerves if he’s employed in anything beyond small doses, but there are enough solid jokes here to justify checking the show out once or twice, if only to see Koechner play the dash of the truck as a drum with paint sticks, all the while singing an impromptu song about “Paint Stickin.” It’s the sort of show where the live studio audience cheers loudly when pot smoking is mentioned.
Alexandra Pelosi (exactly who you think she is) brings her latest documentary, Friends of God, to HBO tonight at 9 p.m. Her last nonfiction feature, Journeys with George, made her a mini-celebrity, and she’s spun that into a career of making movies she calls “road trips.” In Friends of God, Pelosi spends an hour wandering the U.S. in search of evangelical Christians (the hot minority of the TV season, apparently) and what she finds is supposed to amuse us or scare us or… something. Pelosi is so busy jetting from one place to the next that we never get a sense of the people in her documentary as anything other than stereotypes. The Oscar-nominated documentary Jesus Camp introduced a Christian boogey-man just to have a Christian boogey-man, but at least it followed the same characters throughout, letting us get a sense of how their beliefs affected their dealings with the wider world. Pelosi has just found the easiest targets for her camera in Friends of God—including megachurch evangelist Ted Haggard, who, sometime during production, was revealed to have patronized a male prostitute, and forced out of his job.
Obviously, Pelosi had no say in Haggard’s self-destruction, but he’s far from the only camera subject whose presence could be described as grimly comical or off-putting. Without meaning to, the director betrays a condescending attitude toward her topic, inviting us to make fun of evangelicals or be frightened of them or just close our eyes until they leave the screen and are replaced by a fresh set of freaks. Yes, there are Christian wrestlers out there, and drive-through churches and the like, but they don’t make up the majority of America’s evangelicals. Pelosi seems tickled to meet these rubes, and her attitude can be patronizing. “We wouldn’t believe you do this back in New York,” she says ever so often, and you can almost picture her back home, telling a story about those crazy Christians at a dinner party. Certainly those of Pelosi’s inclinations and politics (and I count myself among that number) would do well to figure out exactly what evangelicals believe and why, rather than bowing to received wisdom, but there’s no way that’s going to happen when evangelicals are made the butt of easy jokes.
Sci-Fi’s Dresden Files (9 p.m. Sunday), the cable channel’s latest original series, isn’t up to the level of Battlestar Galactica or even last summer’s uneven Northern Exposure/X-Files hybrid Eureka. But it feels like the sort of show that, given enough time, could grow into the sort of cult hit you find yourself watching a marathon of over Labor Day weekend. The premise is brilliant: Harry Dresden’s a wizard who solves magical crimes and lives in our very real world (but advertises in the yellow pages). The cast is also quite good (particularly Paul Blackthorne as the title character and Terrence Mann as Bob the office ghost). But the show’s attempts to blend scares and snark wander afield far too often. What’s more, the show’s episodes fall into the common genre trap of being too exposition-heavy; by the time the monster of the week’s twists and turns are exposed, we just don’t care anymore, no matter how many witty quips Dresden and Bob trade.
But there may be reason to hope for Dresden. After all, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a similarly high-concept series) didn’t really take off until its second season, and Dresden, a show with a writing staff of people who’ve worked in good genre TV—including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine—seems like it might need a similar number of episodes to iron out its many kinks. Check out an episode or two, or wait for the inevitable marathon. It might all be worth it in the end.
Like football? Then The NFL Network is making the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl heaven for fans. The channel—which unfortunately isn’t yet available in most cable packages—is airing old Super Bowls as they originally appeared (halftime shows intact). The broadcasts make interesting cultural artifacts. Ostentatious patriotism perceptibly rises as troops go to war in Vietnam or Iraq, and the halftime shows of the ’70s and ’80s prove to be every bit as bad as everyone says. More interesting is the NFL Films production America’s Game: The Super Bowl Champions, which counts down the top 20 Super Bowl winners. The series has the usual NFL Films problems, chief among which is a tendency to greatly overstate football’s importance in American history. (An episode on the 1983 Oakland Raiders has narrator Alec Baldwin comparing the team to the Soviets’ “Red army”; one can imagine Baldwin between takes, ranting about the crap he has to read.) But enough time has passed in most of these episodes that the main players behind the teams profiled are willing to open up more about both their personal difficulties and their opinions of each other. It’s amusing to see Lawrence Taylor of the Giants reveal that he thought Phil Simms, the quarterback who led the team to a Super Bowl win, was kind of a wimp, and finding out that former Raider Todd Christensen became an acclaimed tenor is the right kind of bizarre factoid for a “where are they now” segment. If you don’t like football, you won’t find much to entertain you in America’s Game, but there’s enough good stuff there for fans of the game (or even fair-weather fans who prefer baseball, like myself) that it should be just the thing to get ready for the big game.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.