"Rome," which begins its second and final season tomorrow night at 9, has pioneered a new category: HBO Trash.
The series may be HBO's most visually spectacular outing, with its exotic period costuming and its craggy, epic sets, but "Rome" has the heart and soul of a hard-R-rated soap opera. I never imagined putting these three names in the same sentence, but "Rome" could be a collaboration between "I, Claudius" author Robert Graves , Aaron Spelling , and Howard Stern .
Take, for instance, this cozy domestic scene in the "Rome" premiere. It's the morning of Caesar's funeral, and the ever-lusty Mark Antony (James Purefoy ) refuses to get out of bed unless Atia (Polly Walker ), dressed in her funeral garb, agrees to have sex. Impatient and unsure of her social status now that her uncle Caesar is gone, Atia coldly refuses him. Ever practical, though, she then barks an order at her slaves: "Fetch that German slut from the kitchen."
"Rome" is a co production between HBO and the BBC, but there's a skosh of Penthouse in there, too, don't you think?
By the way, I don't mean the word "trash" as an insult. I enjoy well-made, quick-witted trash, and if you do, too, then you will find "Rome" as irresistible as ever. The tone of the show is cruder this season, less high-minded in its portrayal of Roman power struggles. With Caesar dead, courtesy of Brutus at the end of last season, and with the majestic Ciaran Hinds no longer in the cast, "Rome" is missing some of its former gravitas. It's even closer to "Dynasty" than before, and with a sexual primitivism that would make Freud run for cover.
But still, "Rome" is no less compelling and addictive. This season, the historical plot involving the rich and famous is a lot more memorable and charged than the fictional material about the soldiering class. Antony, more arrogant than ever (with Purefoy more Richard Burton-esque than ever), goes up against the precocious Octavian , while Atia tries to choose between them without letting any pesky maternal feelings for Octavian get in the way. It's a grandly titillating story. The business about warrior Vorenus (Kevin McKidd ) in a funk over the loss of his wife and kids, with buddy Pullo (Ray Stevenson ) trying to revive his joie de vivre, is just not as juicy.
The dialogue among the opulent folk is inspired, too, with its kitschy Shakespearean affectations. The insults are rich, such as Atia's comment to Cleopatra , "Die screaming, you pig-spawned trollop." Try muttering that one to your enemies. And the script is artfully wound with contemporary lingo, including Antony's Clintonesque claim about Cleopatra, "I never touched that woman." The ruthless power players of "Rome" have subtle parallels in today's political arena, and the writers occasionally remind us of that.
At the same time, "Rome" does a great job of establishing what that ancient empire does not share with ours. In the manner we've come to expect from HBO shows, "Rome" is quite morally twisted. As with "Deadwood," "The Sopranos," and "Big Love," the heroes would certainly fail our mainstream tests of good and bad. The noblest character on "Rome" is Pullo, who is loyal to Vorenus through thick and thin. But, well, Pullo has performed his share of bad deeds, including the murder of his slave's lover. "I didn't get us started off on the right foot, killing your man and all," is how he begins his marriage proposal to her.
Alas, "Rome" is too expensive and not popular enough to have won a future. In the world of TV, as in the world of "Rome," good does not necessarily triumph.