When it comes to television shows it doesn't get much more epic or expensive than HBO's Rome. With the first season of the show reportedly costing over a hundred million dollars, this collaboration between BBC and HBO definitely went down in history as one of the costliest series of all time, which was a major factor leading up to the show's finale. Everything from the sets to the costumes and equipment was top notch and in most cases it's quite easy to see where the money went. Cost alone doesn't determine quality and thankfully Rome's production crew realized that. The series was highly entertaining and totally engrossing. Once you start watching it you'll be unable to put the show down until the final episode brings about the bloody conclusion. Just what is it all about though?
If you haven't seen Rome then you can more or less ascertain that the series focuses on the tumultuous period in history where Caesar overthrew the senate, rose to power, and was inevitably betrayed by those around him. It's a classic, historical tale told here in a manner that is unlike any other. Rome has a take-no-prisoners mentality and it's not afraid to show the raunchier side of the ancient capital. Aside from the blood, boobs, and sex there are thankfully solid scripts and powerful performances backing every scene and action. Needless to say, if you missed this series when it was broadcast you'll definitely want to make a point to check out the home video release.
Both seasons of Rome have been available on DVD for quite some time, however, there hasn't been a complete collection until now. HBO has just released an 11-disc boxed set with the full series and boatloads of supplemental material. With an MSRP of $99.98 this comprehensive release may cost a pretty penny, but it's still better in the long run than buying the two seasons individually. Conversely, there is also a Blu-ray set that has been released and DVD Talk has a review of that collection and features here. Now, with that all out of the way, let's get on with a look at what makes this show so damn good.
For starters, it's important to note that Rome more or less centers on the activities of two Roman plebs named Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) and Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd). These guys happen to be legionnaires in Caesar's army and make their names solely based on their deeds. They inexplicably find themselves at the heart of moments that shape history and against all odds they trudge through circumstances that would have undoubtedly seen two other men dead. A couple examples of this uncanny ability include recovering Caesar's Eagle, stumbling upon Pompey's money stash, and surviving a shipwreck that killed everyone else. Pullo even coupled with Cleopatra at one point, possibly fathering Caesarion. The show is also self-referential to some extent with Caesar commenting that he would not do ill-will against Pullo and Vorenus because they have powerful goes on their side.
As far as their characters are concerned Vorenus is a family man who longs to settle down and spend time with his wife and children. Though he fights for the man, he opposes Caesar politically when it comes time for the tyrant to overthrow the senate. Pullo, however, goes wherever the women, money, and fighting happen to be. He's a man's man and is quite the polar opposite of Vorenus, which makes them such a dynamic pair for the show to work off of.
The rest of the cast is noteworthy as well. Ciarán Hinds portrays Julius Caesar perfectly and this is one of those roles and performances that defines an actor, in my opinion. Polly Walker plays the deliciously evil and deceptive Atia of the Julii, who is mother to Octavian (Max Pirkis/Simon Woods) and Octavia (Kerry Condon). Then of course there's also Mark Antony (James Purefoy), Marcus Brutus (Tobias Menzies), and Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham). Each of these characters plays out their historical role in some form or another and Rome's success should be largely contributed to this fantastic cast.
Once the show gets underway it follows the path laid before it with some liberties being taken on the events in question. Caesar winds up coming to the conclusion that he should be the rightful ruler of Rome and marches towards the city with his armies. This prompts the Senate to leave Rome prior to his arrival and a long conflict ensues. Throughout it all Caesar appears to remain benevolent as a dictator, is easy on the people of Rome, and shows mercy to his enemies. There is, however, a political faction that is still loyal to Pompey and the Republic. The first season sorts itself out somehow, and leads into the show's second year. In the second season time advances by a rather large margin between some episodes and we see Rome under Antony's rule. There's a little lack of direction during a few episodes here, but all around the quality is every bit as solid as the first season's.
I would go into further detail about the various plots of the series and dissect events that happen, but this is a series that should be seen to be truly appreciated. In so many ways Rome stands out as being truly epic. The writing is a cut above, the acting is absolutely fantastic, and the sets, costumes, and effects easily make the show's enormous budget recognizable. The thing about this show that stands out as the most striking is the atmosphere created by everything once it's rolled together. Rome is unlike any other series out there. Its unrelenting, visceral nature coupled with tension-filled scripts make every second of each episode feel like something special and unique.
If you have never seen Rome before, then this complete collection is a no-brainer. Nearly every episode of this series is a masterpiece and though the second season falters at a few points, the package as a whole is unrivaled. High budget be damned, Rome deserved more material and it's a downright shame that no further episodes of the show will be produced. If you only buy or receive one complete TV series for the holidays this year do your best to ensure that it's this one. Highly Recommended!
Rome is presented on DVD with 11-discs containing all 22 episodes from both seasons. The set comes in a beautifully designed outer box that looks like a book with little more than the logo of the show. The book theme continues with the disc holders themselves and as you flip through the disc you'll find that each "page" is full of incredible artwork and information. There's even a bookmark attached to the set to hold your place! A booklet complete with artwork and information on the characters is packed into the set as well, though there are some spoilers so don't read it lest you ruin some aspects of the show for yourself.
Rome hits DVD with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and has been enhanced for anamorphic playback. While the Blu-ray set may offer a much higher resolution with cleaner details, the standard definition is certainly no slouch. The transfer for these sets is identical to what we saw with the individual season releases and it's just about one of the best damn looking shows out there. Vibrant colors, rich shadows, great contrast, and astounding details all come together for an impressive looking presentation. There's hardly a flaw to be found here, and though some light grain, edge enhancements, and a few instances of compression artifacts are noteworthy, none of them is enough to mar this otherwise amazing looking show. One could argue that you pay for quality when you pick up an HBO release, and Rome's collection stands as a testament of that statement.
Likewise the audio presentation for this series is downright mesmerizing. Rome comes with English 5.1 as its main source of output, though French and Spanish 2.0 tracks are included as well for good measure. The 5.1 mix is particularly engrossing with a great sense presence on the soundstage. You'll feel immersed during many of the show's key moments and whether it's the busy streets of Rome, on the battlefield, or in the bedroom, you'll truly be drawn in with the intelligent use of each channel. The sound is also crisp, clean, and free of flaw as well. All around this is an incredible sounding package and one that deserves to be played with your system cranked up.
Optional subtitle tracks are included for English, French, and Spanish as well.
When the individual seasons of Rome were released they each contained a load of bonus features and were packed with information about the production of the show. It was a very comprehensive look at the series and I feared that the material would have been omitted from the complete collection. Thankfully those fears proved unjustified since every thing has been compiled here fro this release.
For starters there are 13 audio commentaries to dig through. "The Stolen Eagle", "How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic", "Pharsalus", "Kalends of February", "Passover", and "De Patre Vostro" feature commentary by Executive Producer/Writer Bruno Heller and Historical Consultant Jonathan Stamp. Heller brings most of the production focus into play while Stamp fills in the rest with historical facts and notations. They are quite an interesting pair to listen to and I truly appreciated what they brought to each episode they commented on. As far as the other commentaries are concerned: "The Ram has Touched the Wall" features Ray Stevenson (Titus Pullo), "Caesarion" offers one with Director Steve Shill, "Utica" is discussed by Director Jeremy Podeswa, Kevin McKidd (Lucius Vorenus) talks about "The Spoils", "Death Mask" is commented on by Director John Maybury and Lindsay Duncan (Servilia), and "Deus Impeditio Esuritori Nullus" receives a valuable commentary by James Purefoy (Mark Antony).
Apart from the audio commentaries that are featured, there are also text commentaries by Jonathan Stamp. With this feature (entitled "All Roads Lead to Rome") activated textual blurbs will pop up on the screen. These factoids are often linked to other pieces of information and what you win up with is a veritable fountain of historical details pertinent to the episode or event you're watching. It's clear that Stamp was a driving force on this show and I dare say it's his involvement that gives Rome a great portion of its authentic weight.
In addition to all of this information, there are also some featurettes to dig through as you progress through the 11 discs.
The first season includes five featurettes. "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" (11:01) introduces the show's characters, and it certainly helps when trying to keep tabs on everyone early on. Since episodes often leap forward in time there are some details that get left out. This feature is a fine way of catching up after you get a couple of episodes under your belt. The next two featurettes are quite similar, called "Shot X Shot". The first of these is an examination of what went into the production of "Caesar's Triumph" (22:50) scene, and the other is a look at the awesome "Gladiator" (23:01) scene. Other features for the first season include "The Rise of Rome" (23:35), which is a look at the sets, wardrobe, and schooling of the actors, and "When in Rome" (22:39), which looks at the culture of ancient Rome in more detail. There is also a photo gallery included on the sixth disc.
Starting with the first disc of the second season "A Tale of Two Romes" (20:30) looks at the disparity between the patricians and the plebs. This was interesting from a historical perspective and provided a nice look at the contrast between the two classes. "The Making of Rome Season II" (22:52) is basically just what it sounds like, though there are some nice behind the scenes shots and candid moments. "The Rise of Octavian: Rome's First Emperor" (20:44) examines Octavian's rise to power more closely with more details than we saw from the show, and "Antony & Cleopatra" (14:48) looks at the relationship forged between those two characters.
Rome is a bloody good time that will be a standout in anybody's DVD collection. This HBO series rises above the rest with astounding production quality, incredible writing, historical value, and acting that is second to none. In all honesty though, it's the package as a whole that makes the series feel so special. There isn't a single defining characteristic that stands out more than the others, which is quite remarkable. Nothing of this magnitude has been attempted before, and the results simply have to be seen to be appreciated.
It's a shame that the budget of the show is more or less what killed it, but it could be said that it's better to burn out than fade away. Trust me when I tell you that Rome burns brightly indeed! This complete boxed set earns the DVD Talk Collector's Series rating.
Check out more of my reviews here. Head on over to my anime blog as well for random musings and reviews of anime, manga, and stuff from Japan!