While Network television complains that ratings continue to fall, it's largely because they take no risks, putting out increasingly dull reality shows that start to seem exactly the same after a while. Although cable television has obviously always sought out riskier fare, the gap between network programming and cable programming continues to get wider, as the networks look for increasingly cheaper fare to produce, while cable networks are winning the awards with shows like "The Shield", "Deadwood" and the very costly "Rome".
"Rome" is not merely a small, mini-series style production of Roman history. Instead, it is a mega-budgeted (for a television series - apparently the series did not go for a third season simply because it proved too costly to the financing companies) look at power struggles during the time period, done with imprssive scope and scale. The series did wrap after two seasons, but while the show did not gain a mass audience, its followers were devoted and the series did get quite a bit of awards recognition (4 Emmy wins and 4 nominations, among others.)
The first season of the series is a triumph, delivering the story in knockout fashion, with powerful performances and an intensity that never seems to let up. Taking place in 52 BC, the series follows the power struggle between Pompey (Kenneth Cranham) and Caesar (Ciaran Hindis) - a force of wills that starts to boil over, as Pompey engineers a plan to try and topple the mighty Caesar, with the assistance of Brutus (Tobias Menzies). In the midst of the uprising, Caesar's nice Atia (Polly Walker) tries to position her son, Octavian (Max Pirkis) for a rise to power. The series does a magnificent job weaving between the stories of a small army of characters - including soldiers Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), who remain a focus - and the first season does an excellent job ramping tension and working forwards the breathtaking second season.
Production values are astonishing for a TV series, and no expense seems to have been spared to deliver a feature film-like presentation for the small screen. Epic battles, incredible sets and glorious costume work are all on display throughout the two seasons of the series. The show's direction, cinematography, costume design and art direction are all exceptional.
The second season of the series starts shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar and follows Mark Antony (James Purefoy) and Octavian (Simon Woods) as the two try to compete against one another to fill the position left by Caesar's death. While Octavious is the rightful heir, Antony's ambition pushes him forward towards greater power. Purefoy gives a commanding, intense performance as Antony, while Woods offers an equally fierce performance as Octavian. The supporting cast shines, as well, especially Lindsay Duncan, Polly Walker and others. A brutal, powerful and ambitious series that, "Rome" goes out on a high note in this second season.
VIDEO: "Rome" episodes are presented by HBO in 1.78:1 (1080p/AVC) and the results - while not perfect - are mostly pleasing. Sharpness and detail are generally above-average, as while a few minor instances of softness are spotted, the picture otherwise showed very nice clarity and detail. Additionally, at best, the picture showed a pleasing level of depth to the image.
While generally a top-notch affair, the presentation did fall short in a few regards, as some mild noise was spotted at times, as were a few slight instances of edge enhancement at times. No instances of wear or tear were seen on the elements used, nor were any instances of pixelation seen. Colors looked bold and rich, with excellent saturation and no smearing or other faults. Flesh tones also remained spot-on. While not reference quality, this was an upgrade over the DVD.
SOUND: The DTS-HD 5.1 audio presentation was consistently quite good. While the show's audio presentation wasn't particularly aggressive, surrounds kicked in at times to deliver detailed discrete sound effects and reinforcement of the score. Audio quality was terrific, with solid bass and natural, clean-sounding speech. The DTS-HD presentation had a fuller, more commanding presence, with deeper base and improved clarity.
EXTRAS: For season 1:
"The Stolen Eagle" offers commentary by Creator Bruno Heller and Historical Consultant Jonathan Stamp, "How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic" offers commentary by Heller and Stamp, "The Ram Has Touched the Wall" offers commentary with actor Ray Stevenson (Titus Pullo), "Pharsalus" offers commentary from Heller and Stamp, while "Caesarion" offers thoughts from director Steve Shill and "Utica" offers comments from director Jeremy Podeswa.
For season 2:Creator Bruno Heller and Historical Consultant Jonathan Stamp offer an audio commentary for "Passover", Director John Maybury and Lindsay Duncan offer an audio commentary for "Death Mask", Executive Producer John Melfi and Director Carl Franklin offer an audio commentary for "A Necessary Fiction", James Purefoy offers a commentary for "Deus Impeditio Esuritori Nullus" and finally, Creator Bruno Heller and Historical Consultant Jonathan Stamp return for "De Patre Vosto". The commentary tracks can seem a little dry at times and some do have some gaps of silence between comments. However, fans of the series will still find a lot of information within these tracks, as the participants do give some solid insights about creating the show's epic scope, working with the large cast, historical accuracy and much more.
A series of five featurettes for the first season are scattered throughout the first half of the set and certainly deliver quite a bit of insight into the series, starting with two remarkably in-depth documentaries (running 22 minutes each) called "Shot by Shot", which take apart two key scenes in the first season and provide a fascinating look at the wealth of work and planning that can go into one scene. "When In Rome" is a 22-minute look into the history behind the series, while "The Rise of Rome" offers a 22-minute overview of the production of the first season. Given the enormity of the production and the detail that had to go into every aspect, I'd love to have seen a feature-length look into the making of the show. Finally, "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" is a shorter look into the characters.
Four featurettes for season 2 are included, spread out across the set. These are: "A Tale of Two Romes", "Making of Season 2", ""The Rise of Octavian: Rome's First Emperor" and "Antony and Cleopatra". All four featurettes run approximately 20-22 minutes each. The "making of" documentary looks into the production of the second season, but the other three documentaries focus more on the historical background of the events/characters of the series. The "making of" documentary is a good overview of the show's immense, ambitious production, but I'd have liked to have seen more than an overview. Given how much detail and planning must have gone into the series, I would have liked a lengthier look at the making of the show. Finally, also included for each episode are, "All Roads Lead to Rome" features, which are optional subtitle fact tracks done by the show's historical consultant, Jonathan Stamp. "Interactive Bloodlines" are also offered, delivering an interactive look at the connections between the characters.
Finally, we also get episode previews.
Final Thoughts: A force-of-nature series that unfortunately only lasted a pair of seasons, "Rome" is a bold, powerful historic drama with stellar performances. The Blu-Ray set (which is housed in a gorgeous book-like case) packs in tons of supplemental features, as well as very nice audio/video quality. Recommended.