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I Come to Bury Rome (And To Praise It)

There’s a lot to like about Rome, the HBO/BBC/RAI historical drama set during the final conflicts that transformed the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. There’s the “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” approach it takes to telling its story, following the exploits of two Roman soldiers — Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo — as they manage to involve themselves in events that shaped history. There’s the strange melding of styles that puts the show somewhere between a BBC costume drama and HBO’s “people-making-bad-decisions-involving-sex-and-violence” format that somehow works (though unevenly at times). There’s a huge, diverse, and talented ensemble cast that shows us not only the conflicts that were occurring but the context they were happening in — not unlike The Wire did. Like The Wire, this show has no simple characters — only complex, conflicted, real people who all have their own base and noble moments. And it’s one of the most beautiful television series I’ve seen, a product of the show’s “notoriously expensive” production values.

Which makes the show’s second, final season so frustrating. Bruno Heller, the show’s co-creator and primary writer, had intended a five-season arc for the show. The first, which begins with Caesar’s final battle to subjugate Gaul and ends with his assassination, is wonderfully paced. It moves right along, but it’s full of nuance. During pre-production of the second season, which he had intended to end with the Battle of Phillipi and the death of Marcus Junius Brutus, Heller found out the show would not be renewed, so he decided to collapse his plans for the third and fourth seasons into the second half of the second season. And it shows. The result is that the second season tries to do too much, and it loses of much of the subtlety that made the first season great. The last two episodes in particular are full of bombast, moving from big moment to big moment — often without the setup that would have imbued them with a greater sense of pathos. The fall of Marc Anthony and the redemption of Lucius Vorenus are both handled in a particularly ham-handed fashion — which particularly irks me because I can see how well they could have been done with more time.

I’ve seen this sort of problem before, in Babylon 5 where questions about renewal for the fifth season led to a telescoping of the end of the fourth, and in Battlestar Galactica where the production shutdown brought on by the Writers Guild strike necessitated bringing resolution to one of the storylines early. But this is a case where I don’t feel like the story would have been incomplete if they’d stuck to the original plan. I would have rather have seen a shorter arc in more detail than a rushed one painted in broad strokes. Why not end the story with the death of Caesar’s assassins? It worked for Shakespeare.

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