It was nearly three years ago to the day that I was enticed into watching Roman Empire: Reign of Blood, a Netflix orginal. Having made it most of the way through the first episode, I was not tempted to watch any more.
In the time since, Netflix has added two more seasons, hyping them to me as each came out. It made me question my initial, negative impression. Obviously, the show to be in some way successful to Netflix. Could I be failing to appreciate a reasonably-solid offering? Since Netflix streaming does not have user ratings or user-written reviews, it is difficult to sanity check myself. Netflix, in its algorithmic wisdom, declared I had an 83% chance* of digging Roman Empire, but a match gives no indication as to quality. I finally decided I’d have to use IMDB, which has user rankings, although I’ve only found those useful for identifying the truly awful stuff (if it’s got 2.5/10 on IMDB, its gonna be worse than bad). IMDB gives Roman Empire a 6.9 (at least when I checked) and has a moderately positive review. Perhaps I have been to harsh on this one.
My second motivator is that I’ve got a hankering for a light review of the life of Julius Caesar. The other day, I reminded myself that in 2003 I watched a show called, simply Julius Caesar. It was a TNT mini-series that I watched when it originally aired on cable. It was big budget (by TV standards) and starred many top-name actors (by TV standards). Jeremy Sisto portrayed Caesar himself with Richard Harris as Sulla, Christopher Walken as Cato the Elder, Chris Noth as Pompey, and Rain Man supporting actress Valeria Golino as Caesar’ wife**. Unfortunately, if memory serves, despite the big names and some rather expensive sets, it still had too much of a “mini-series” feel to it. I’d watch it again, but it seems to be entirely unavailable. Also, for what its worth, it has 6.7 stars on IMDB.
Now, the second season of Roman Empire is a biography of Caesar. It would seem that this would be a reasonable substitute and, better yet, it is available and free (or shall I say, included). That’s enough to push me into giving it another go. The part of me that likes to be organized decided that I should really finish the first season (the Seasons are 6, 5, and 4 episodes long, respectively, so this isn’t that much of a commitment) which covers the death of Marcus Aurelius and his succession by his son Commodus. So I picked up right where I left off, with Season 1, Ep. 2.
By the immortal gods, this show is awful.
Now, I’ll grant this to Netflix – I’m quite sure there are far worse shows out there. There are even worse shows on Netflix, but I’m not watching most of them. This show earns its unique scorn by its combination of poor quality and the fact that I, nevertheless, keep watching it.
It is structured on the History Channel formula. Stock footage is interspersed with the lead actors posing, pacing (sometimes in slow motion), or just looking anguished. Tying it together, the narrator (the show sprang for Sean Bean) slowly moves forward through the historical arc, although mostly be repeating the same phrases over and over (“the fate of Rome now hung in the balance!”). Very occasionally, key plot elements (or just those that involve boobies) are acted out rather than narrated. Well, the narration usually follows, sometimes more than once, just to make sure we all got it. Each episode ends as a cliff hanger, so while nothing may have happened for the 45 minutes you spent watching, you are promised that something momentous will be occurring when the next episode opens.
The repetition elevates the little cost-cutting details to major annoyances. The first time I saw the CGI-reconstructed buildings of ancient Rome, I admired the effort if not the end result. Reusing those same half-dozen images ruined that good will. There is another reused live-action scene that consists of an overhead view of a market stall. There are two groups of people, walking in opposing circles around a central booth. From the first time it was shown, I could see it was a quick-and-dirty background shot. Maybe it shouldn’t have been so quick, so dirty given the number of times they’ve reused it in the show.
Wikipedia further suggests that some of that stock footage is actually taken from a similar BBC production that came out 10 years earlier. That show doesn’t seem to be easily accessible, although one would hope the Beeb didn’t it a little better (8.0 on IMDB!). Although I can’t identify the reused footage, I can identify some of the Netflix-original “stock” shots. In Roman Empire, there are a surprising number of citizens of Rome that bear south-pacific islander features. Roman Empire was shot in New Zealand as opposed to Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire‘s Eastern Europe and Africa. It’s nice to see the production didn’t discriminate racially in the hiring of extras, but can be jarring to see Italians who don’t at all resemble Italians.
I’ll grant the show this one (albeit backhanded) compliment. At a time in my life when I feel like time is rushing by me, Roman Empire makes its 40-some minute running time feel like hours.
Season 1 of the series ends with the death of Commodus at the hands of Narcissus. In contrast to the first five episodes, it focuses mostly on reenacted scenes rather than narrated ones. In doing so, it compresses the last year or two of Commodus’ reign into what appears to be about 3 days of story, distorting historical details in the process. Let’s acknowledge that this show never claimed to be a documentary or an educational piece. We frequently allow for twisted history in the interest of story and entertainment. Is it so wrong in this context? Compare and contrast with the movie Gladiator, which sometimes seems to get everything wrong but Commodus’ name, but ends up being an engaging and successful (made 100s of millions and won Best Picture). Which take offends us, we amateur history buffs, more?
*Or at least I think they did. Netflix seems to have done away with that percent-match system of rating streaming content (to which I respond “good riddance”) and I don’t recall exactly how much or why they thought I’d like it.
**I really wouldn’t have known Valeria Golino, but I was sorely tempted to make a joke about how she must be above suspicion, or something like that. Unfortunately, Caesar’s second wife, Pompeia, does not seem to have been portrayed. Golino plays third wife, Calpurnia.