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Cutthroat TV

HBO shares water-cooler buzz and Emmy glory with the broadcast networks about as well as co-consuls Gaius Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus split power in the waning years of the Republic as seen in Rome, HBO’s newest and most lavish dramatic series yet. In other words, jealousy and attempts to undercut the other reign. ABC even brought out its own expensive multi-episode saga of ancient Rome over the summer, called Empire, with charges flying back and forth between the companies over whose project was first, and whose would find a bigger audience. But while Empire — a cheesy if not unwatchable miniseries framing the ascendancy of Julius Caesar’s great nephew Octavius as a Gladiator-like action story — got mostly a thumbs-down from TV citizens, ABC has this past year become the conqueror of Sunday nights (HBO’s original show territory) with Desperate Housewives, which launches its second season September 25. In essence, Rome has four weeks to hook viewers before the suburban lionesses return to the arena to slaughter all takers. HBO also has to overcome another possible stumbling block. Despite its show’s surface differences, there is an underlying sense of sameness creeping into the lineup. Rome is the third large-cast series about a corrupt cityscape for HBO, after the novelistic Baltimore show The Wire and its town-without-pity episodic Deadwood. The other genres it can’t get enough of? Insider Hollywood comedy (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, The Comeback) and dysfunctional families (The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and next spring’s polygamy program Big Love). It just shows that as successful, taboo-breaking, entertaining and award-winning the pay cable channel has been, it’s not averse to returning to certain tried-and-true wells the way the Big Four seem addicted to crime procedurals, legal dramas, blue-collar sitcoms and hospital shows, to name this decade’s top flavors.Still, Rome turns out to be an entertaining mixture of epic sweep and dirty characterizations, comfortably moving from the halls of military and governmental power — where the battle between the pleb-friendly aristocrat Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) and the aristocrat-friendly lower class Pompey (Kenneth Cranham) is waged — to the loud, bustling alleyways of plebeian life. It’s a sort of Upstairs, Downstairs set in 52 B.C., where the parallel stories of nobles and soldiers, masters and slaves, serve to paint a picture of historic events that has a few more human shades than if viewed from the standpoint of the rulers. Then again, when in the first episode, directed with economy and energy by Michael Apted, we see Cato in the Senate denouncing Caesar’s nakedly political “illegal war” in Gaul — the spoils of which he uses to keep an increasingly unemployed common folk happy and loyal — and then see Caesar worrying about his war-ravaged army’s morale, it’s hard not to think of today’s headlines. But because Rome is about ambition and survival, plaster busts and severed heads, it doesn’t make the mistake of portraying anybody’s ideals — especially those trying to save what has become a corrupt Republic — as anything but something to chatter on about while looking out for oneself.Caught up in the high-stakes struggle for control of Rome are two soldiers, a gruff, orders-following centurion named Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and a bloodthirsty, vice-loving legionary under his command called Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). Thrown together unwillingly in the first episode to look for Caesar’s stolen golden eagle — a task that brings unforeseen glory but also triggers unforeseen political warfare — their burgeoning, unlikely friendship becomes the most dramatically rich thread in Rome. Lucius returns from eight years of fighting trying to fit in as a husband and provider for a wife (Indira Varma) who thought him dead. Titus Pullo, meanwhile, self-destructively drinks and whores and brawls his way into civilian life, but still harbors a desire to settle down like his new pal Lucius, whom he feels protective toward.In the more I, Claudius vein of ruling-class treachery is Polly Walker’s bravura turn as Caesar’s niece Atia, ever mindful of impending civil war, who pimps her inconveniently married daughter Octavia to the widowed, gray-haired Pompey with the nonchalance of a mother signing her daughter up for swimming lessons. And don’t get her started on scrawny, testosterone-challenged son Octavian (Max Pirkis), who she has conquering designs for, at one point hectoring him, “You will penetrate someone today or I shall burn your wretched books in the yard!”Despite the British skew of the cast and a history of overwritten, overdelivered swords-and-sandals epics, creator Bruno Heller’s dialogue thankfully isn’t so fustian, allowing for curt slang and colorful accents. I was reminded of Harvey Keitel’s excoriated dese-and-dose performance in The Last Temptation of Christ, and now think the tough-guy actor’s New Jersey Judas would fit in well in this grimy, cutthroat Rome. Besides, I’m sure HBO wouldn’t mind if viewers — soon to mourn the loss of their favorite double-crossing Italian crime family (barring a last-minute change of heart by David Chase) — felt like their newest show could pick up the mantle of corruption, backstabbing, violence and sex forged by The Sopranos. “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” the ad went. So it’s TV after all. Is that so bad? I mean, it’s not the end of the Republic. Since Fox has turned the second-by-second storytelling trope of 24 into a cultural phenomenon, it stands to reason the network would want to see other permutations on season-long ticking suspense. Now we get Prison Break, debuting with a two-hour premiere Sunday, and based on the first hour — all that was made available for review by press time — this could be a brisk and bruising weekly fix. The outside world is a blur in the first few scenes as Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) gets a tattoo, closes up an office swamped with newspaper clippings, holds up a bank, and gets sentenced to five years at Fox River State Penitentiary (which I truly hope we find out is actually a Rupert Murdoch-owned facility). It seems he’s angling to get close to his brooding brother Lincoln (Dominic Purcell), who is on death row — framed, he thinks — for the murder of the vice president’s brother. Michael’s big plan is to bust Lincoln out before his execution in three months, a.k.a. May 2006 sweeps.So far there’s no hint of Oz-like grimness in this big-house tale, one sign being Michael’s armed robber cellmate Sucre (Amaury Nolasco), who talks up marrying his girlfriend on the outside, solving any distracting man-rape worries for viewers conditioned to expect as much whenever prisons are the subject. But hey, it’s still only episode one, and writers can be weak. The toughest guy in the cast may be 64-year-old Stacy Keach, an actor born to play either prisoners or prison wardens. He’s the latter here, and at one point warns the cocky Michael, who’s just turned down an offer to work in his office three days a week, “It’s better for me to owe you one in here, than for you to owe me one, I can promise you that.” But even he talks tenderly about a long-suffering wife of 39 years. Then there’s Michael’s flirtations with the cute infirmary doctor (Sarah Wayne Callies), and the fact that Michael’s attorney (Robin Tunney) finds time to discuss her tragic breakup with Lincoln long ago. All this inevitably speaks to an even larger wooing going on: Fox’s toward female viewers.As for the brain in the center of all this brawn, Wentworth Miller gives a performance that brings to mind the protagonist of Fox’s short-lived corporate espionage drama of a decade ago, Profit, recently committed to DVD, about an enigmatic businessman (Adrian Pasdar) with revenge on his mind. Not that Michael does anything as inexplicably weird as sleeping naked in a cardboard box (a memorable image from that gone-too-soon show), but it’s like welcoming a new mysterious stranger to TV. He’s entered maximum-security life armed with the kinds of weapons — secrets, information — that can’t get exposed from a pat-down, and it gives this show’s scheming hero an enjoyably smirking ambiguity.


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