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The Bare Hand

A Love Letter To ‘Rome,’ The Show That Died So That ‘Game Of Thrones’ Might Live

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There are a handful of shows usually credited for making television safe for art, for creating the current paradigm, where making insightful, relevant entertainment for television is widely seen as something worth doing. The Sopranos, which premiered in 1999, Six Feet Under in 2001, and The Wire in 2002 — then and now probably the high-water mark of serialized television — are the most oft-cited big three, rightly credited for carving the path followed by True Detective, Breaking Bad, Mr. Robot, Fargo, et al. (It’s honestly preposterous how much good TV we have now.)

Rome, premiering in 2005, wasn’t the first. (Nor were the shows cited above. There were scattered great serialized television before, from Larry Sanders to Dream On.) But it was distinct enough from anything that had come before that it was both a huge departure and a ballsy risk. Nonetheless it succeeded in building a loyal fanbase, though that ultimately wasn’t enough to keep it from ended up getting canceled before the second season even aired.

There were the more obvious, superficial reasons why Rome (which can be streamed on HBO Now) was different. Whereas The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and The Wire all screamed “contemporary television,” Rome was a period piece, and a fabulously expensive one at that. A co-production between HBO and the BBC, the show cost upwards of $100 million for 11 episodes. Using a massive set that spanned five acres, the BBC, putting up 15% of the budget, was reportedly spending £800,000 an episode, which is about $1.4 million at 2005 rates. Marketplace reported the full per-episode cost at $9 million, which would make it a third more expensive than Game of Thrones ($6 million per episode, per the same article) is now. And that’s without adjusting for inflation. Accounting for inflation and taking the massive actor salaries of shows like ER and Friends out of the mix, Rome is still the most expensive show ever made.

Even if Rome‘s producers planned for the costs, they were flying blind when it came to figuring out the show’s niche. Could you even do contemporary, water-cooler television capturing the zeitgeist with a show set in olden times? No one had ever really tried to this extent before. Before Downton Abbey, before Mad Men, before Boardwalk Empire, before The Knick, before Thrones, there was Rome. (Deadwood came before, but TV shows set in the Old West have been a thing since the ’50s, and the infrastructure already existed.)

There are so many elements of Game Of Thrones that first existed in Rome, but one thing I miss about Rome, are some of the history jokes (with Game of Thrones being set in a pseudo-mythical alternate medieval past, historical references only sort of apply). In one scene early in season one, Ray Stevenson’s Titus Pullo (the “cheerful, brutish one,” as described by Atia of the Julii) is trying to explain to Kevin McKidd’s Lucius Vorenus (“the sullen Catonian”) how to please his wife. “When you couple with her there’s this spot just above her cunny,” Pullo says. “It’s like a button. Now, attend to that button and she will open up like a flower.”

At this, Vorenus seems as if he’s about to open Pullo’s throat, screaming “How do you know this about her?!”

This dumb scene still cracks me up every time I think about it. Pullo and Vorenus were this singular, immensely enjoyable Laurel and Hardy comedy duo (but super bro-y because they were Roman soldiers) who also stabbed people in the throat and Forrest Gumped their way through all the big moments in Roman history. I loved this show so damn much.

Beyond the superficialities — that it was a period piece, that it was filmed overseas on an extravagant budget, that it would’ve been a hard R-rating if it was a movie — Rome was also a groundbreaking precursor to Game of Thrones in subtler, artistic ways. Where The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire were all clearly intended as awards-worthy, arthouse television, Rome — like Game Of Thrones after it but even more so — embraced schlock and exploitation film sensationalism as much as it embraced prestige (with John Milius on as one of the executive producers, would you expect anything else?).

As somebody who enjoyed watching every moment of Rome, during the wait for ADWD, I gotta say this is an accurate observation. There are so many familiarities and elements that served as a pretext for HBO to create GOT, especially the overseas cooperation, casting, filming sets, budget etc.

You can read the rest here:

http://uproxx.com/tv/rome-hbo-a-love-latter/2/

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Especially second this bit:

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Rome was a show that made you fall in love with characters that murdered people in cold blood, sold slaves, and pimped out family members — it was deliciously wicked, and everything one would hope for from a show about Rome — but it was also more normalizing than Game of Thrones in a lot of ways. At its best, Rome treated the sex and violence as parts of life, things that were just there.

There’s no way to put this without it sounding like a knock on Game of Thrones, and trust me, I love Game of Thrones. George RR Martin’s humanist unsentimentality and willingness to kill off any character at any time is one of his best qualities — I listened to every Song Of Ice And Fire audiobook back to back, something like 300 hours of audio, time I probably could’ve spent learning a new language but instead I know about dragons. I digress. As much as I love Game of Thrones‘ nihilism, one aspect of it I’m not especially fond of is the way the series has started using cruelty for titillation (though I acknowledge that they’re six seasons in now and coming up with that much material is unfathomably hard). Thrones can sometimes feel as like they’re just treading water between grotesque depravities. Sorry for all the boring feelings stuff, here’s Ramsay Bolton having someone torn apart by dogs!

 

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Rome was such a good show, even better than GoT in my opinion. It's a shame they had to settle for anything less than the planned 4 seasons, but maybe it was just ahead of its time. I think they did a good job at finishing it regardless. 

I am still a big Thrones fan, but I'll list a few things I liked more about Rome, feel free to disagree: 

- The dialogues were better. GoT has some epic scenes, but many of them are either taken directly from the books or seem more like theatrical language rather than natural. And a few are just painful. In Rome, I almost always had the feeling that it was both awesome and natural dialogue. They managed to show the chemistry between characters with just a few lines as well (look at Posca/Caesar, Cassius/Brutus, or Scipio/Cato, for example).

- The historical sets are awesome. 

- The characters all had understandable motives, which was kinda neat. The last few GoT seasons had a few problems in that regard.

- They had no direct plot to follow, only a loose framework of historical events, and managed to make a (for the most part) believeable and intriguing story out of it. GoT always seems to struggle when it doesn't have the books to follow.

- They focused on the peasants as much as on the nobility, which of course isn't really possible in GoT, so I don't blame the creators for that, but it's exceptional for historical TV shows. 

- The acting was pretty much on point. GoT has, in my opinion, some of the best actors in recent television history, but I think it also has quite a few more bad actors in between (cough Sand Snakes cough). The only actor who disappointed me in Rome was adult Octavian. 

- I remember no plot points going nowhere in Rome, in GoT there are a few, or at least a few that got more screentime than they deserved (like all those time spent with the High Sparrow or the dornish). Some things were rushed etc., but that was because they had their show cancelled. 

- Marc Anthony has best answer to the Stark words:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfeytbHBPFM

 

That's all I can think of at the moment. :P

 

 

 

Edited by John Doe

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The first season of Rome was the best thing on television.  Better than any season of GOT.  One of the thing I loved the most was the way it kept its epic story grounded in compelling human drama rather than trying to beat you over the head with how epic it was. 

Two great scenes amongst many.

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Posted (edited)

On 16.11.2016 at 0:36 PM, The Bare Hand said:

Especially second this bit:

Rome was a show that made you fall in love with characters that murdered people in cold blood, sold slaves, and pimped out family members — it was deliciously wicked,

[...]

Game of Thrones‘ nihilism, one aspect of it I’m not especially fond of is the way the series has started using cruelty for titillation

Uhhh, what?

Quote

(though I acknowledge that they’re six seasons in now and coming up with that much material is unfathomably hard). Thrones can sometimes feel as like they’re just treading water between grotesque depravities. Sorry for all the boring feelings stuff, here’s Ramsay Bolton having someone torn apart by dogs!


With the exception of that one (out of several) Tyrion/Dany scene where they came off kinda sleepy, nothing in the show has ever given me the impression of phoning in everything between "grotesque cruelties" and treating it as filler -- all the "feelings", personal drama, humor, mystique, action, eroticism and everything else the show contains, seems to be executed with the same amount of inspiration and dedication as the "grotesque violence" scenes.

I'd say there's some good amount of phoning when it comes to plot organization etc., but nothing resembling your "they only awake when they get to do Ramsay dogs" narrative.

So I've no idea what you're on about :D

Edited by Pink Fat Rast

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