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All Roads Inevitably Lead Back to Rome: The Borgias vs Rome . . .
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Part 1: All Roads Lead to "Rome"... And With Good Reason
Rebel With A Cause
The Rome-dominated Mediterranean antiquity inspired some of the very first and best historical epics, either on film or on television, such as “Spartacus”, “Ben Hur” and “I, Claudius”. Come Easter time, every viewer is reminded not only of a Rome-dominated world but also a Rome-dominated genre, the culmination of which is indisputably the historical drama “Rome” which achieved something unique: it is both the king and the rebel in the history of television epics (which never really went out of fashion but are right now going through a Golden Age, a revitalized phase of modernity in creative approach and renewed commercial and critical interest). The HBO-BBC-RAI mammoth-endeavor that cost 100 million dollars was early crowned as one of the best (in my opinion THE best) ever historical dramas and revolutionized the way television epics are produced but sadly, like any proper rebel, died sooner than it should have (it only lasted for 2 seasons and gave us 22 wonderful episodes). Thankfully, that time was enough for it to make an impact and prove that television can actually be just as -or at least almost as- ambitious as cinema in its scope, not to mention that it set an example of quality standards recreated by (mostly unworthy) successors such as “The Tudors”, “The Borgias”, “Boardwalk Empire”, “Borgia” and “Game of Thrones”. This part of my first comparative review for 2013 (I’ve missed engaging in stimulating conversations with you, guys!) will be less about a straight comparison of one aspect of “The Borgias” to the respective one of “Rome” but rather an exploration of what “Rome” offered in abundance that most of today’s historical/epic shows lack: an actual perspective when it came to narrative and a creative reimagining of written history.
Choosing an interesting era to explore -meaning an era packed with scandalous sex, wanton bloodshed and naked ambition- is an absolute prerequisite for any self-respecting period drama. That’s the standard most historical shows easily and effortlessly meet and when it comes to a dark age of idolatry, conquest and radical political shifts one can hardly find better than the Roman Republic/Empire. Fortunately, “Rome” didn’t rely solely on this. Opting simply for a straight retelling of the final days of Caesar and the subsequent rise of Octavian and his conflict with Antony and Cleopatra, Bruno Heller would merely have had created a more pleasing in terms of visuals prequel for “I, Claudius”, the stellar BBC effort that attempted, mostly successfully, to inject wit and cynicism to what was by then (the ‘70s) a pretty stale, unoriginal, bland, “stereotypic hero” field. Intelligently, the creator of “Rome” knew he needn’t look too far to find a unique way to narrate the final years of the Roman Republic: he went for the old, tried-and-true “rich versus poor” (rather “patrician versus plebeian”) duality which enabled him to explore Roman society horizontally rather than vertically, and instead of only focusing on the upper-class domestic and political feuds, which would have soon proved tiresome and repetitive, not to mention that they are already played to death, he chose to open the show’s narrative to all kinds of interesting opportunities, full of parallels to today’s state of political affairs, inequality, questions of homeland and allegiance, spousal relationships and so on. In effect, the same, unoriginal, almost clichéd upstairs/downstairs device that “Downton Abbey” partly owes its success to is transformed in “Rome” in an entirely new thing: a prism through which history isn’t simply rewritten but rather made or lived. The difference: the social mobility. Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, two of the greatest original character creations in ‘00s television and one of the best specimens of male chemistry and camaraderie, become the audience’s vessels -or perhaps vassals- and lead us through a very authentic-looking-and-feeling ancient Rome for 22 episodes that have them go through personal triumph, loss, despair, madness and even death, all the while influencing historical developments in an admirably organic way that adds a whole new layer of unpredictability and suspense to an already well-known story that’s been told innumerable times before.
The Patrician and the Pauper
The social mobility I alluded to above is one of the defining factors in the storytelling of “Rome” and instead of an obstinate and relentless “patricians VS plebs” approach that would see the caged in their marble villas rich people always denigrate and battle the poor, the writers opt for a “patricians AND plebes” storyline that doesn’t even for a moment glorify the appalling slavery-based Roman economy but also, realistically, examines the human bonds inevitably developed between the nobles and those beneath them, often seeing the former seeking the aid, counsel, affection, even approval of their servants, dependants, bodyguards et cetera. This upstairs/downstairs approach of “Rome” may sound -and actually is- conventional: the vast gap between the rich and the poor in any given era is examined, however fleetingly, in pretty much every historical drama, even as a theme indirectly touched upon by simply displaying the unbelievable luxury and glamour of the lives of Kings, Popes, gangsters or Lannisters. BUT: in “Rome”, the initially established impression that the patricians are going to be involved in the political storyline and the plebs in the more personal, soapier side of the narrative is soon proven false. The political storyline is quite often driven by the plebeians or at least greatly impacted by their actions while the personal passions and weaknesses overtake the Roman bourgeoisie and leads to the marvelously juicy and dangerous developments. In fact, “Rome” is never better than when the personal merges with the political and turn into one hot mess, with tragic consequences for all involved (a glorious example being Caesar’s assassination, perhaps in the show’s best episode, the Season 1 finale “Kalends of February”). Due to the complexity and variety generated by deftly mixing characters of different backgrounds and agendas, pretty much every single episode in “Rome” is packed with an equally large amount of plot and character development, unusually rich in tension and action, almost as if the writers were aware while plotting both seasons that they wouldn’t get more time than what they eventually got to tell everything they wanted to say).
Big-budget shows that followed “Rome” may boast that they tell their story in as interesting a way as possible. “Game of Thrones” takes pride in being a series with a vastly complicated storyline comprised of countless separate -and disparate, in my opinion- plot threads, inhabited and driven by myriads of characters, but unfortunately only a handful of them are interesting at any given moment or have the benefit of mere presence, let alone motion and evolution, in a 50-min installment. “Boardwalk Empire” explores crime during the Prohibition in a pretty straightforward way, its only innovation being that its main character is part real/part fictional which allows for a certain amount of creative license, surprise and imagination. “The Tudors” managed to examine the reign of Henry VIII and the fate of his six wives in a sexy, refreshingly trashy and glitzy manner. Unfortunately, “The Borgias” is the most pedestrian show in that respect: though appealing in every sense and quite breathtaking in some ways, “The Borgias” has nothing new to add in terms of the ways of telling a story and other than reimagining history here and there (mostly, not to its benefit), it quite closely and obediently follows the tropes of the historical drama genre (extremely archaic-sounding language and theatricality, slow pace, especially in Season 1, and changing the episodes’ format is extremely out of the question – why historical dramas can’t more often employ successful, both in terms of critical and ratings appeal, devices such as flashback episodes or “bottle” episodes?). Actually, worse than telling the story in a commonplace way, the show often makes real history seem much more simple and tame than it was in reality, its only contribution to the Borgia lore and its only redeeming invention being the surprisingly mature and non-stereotypical presentation and evolution of the Cesare-Lucrezia relationship that gets much of the show’s screen-time and is placed front-and-center in almost each and every one of the show’s storylines, intelligently functioning as a permanent, subterranean allegory for forbidden desire and what it transforms human beings to. Other than that, the show’s main themes of sin and power feel awfully generic, even though the show makes commendable efforts to be a mild and non-judgmental analysis of the characters’ psyche and personal journeys.
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Part 2: The Die is (Ensemble) Cast
If there’s a show that truly makes the best of every member of its ensemble cast that is “Rome”. Contrary to “The Borgias”, which rallies its ensemble only to provide its three leads, Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia, with allies, enemies or love interests, “Rome” constructs a multi-layered plot that is at the same time or successively driven by Caesar, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, Mark Antony, Atia, Octavian and many more who have the privilege of stepping in the limelight and getting their characters fleshed out by alternating in the role of hero, antihero or villain. Absolutely dominant among the characters in Season 1 is Gaius Julius Caesar, the historical figure most people associate Roman antiquity with and Ciaran Hinds was at the time the show premiered the most versatile and veteran cast-member in “Rome”, as well as an excellent and unique choice for the part (nowadays he’s enjoying renewed fame as the gazillionth addition to the “Game of Thrones” cast, after a hit-and-miss performance as Sigourney Weaver’s adulterous ex-husband in the mediocre miniseries “Political Animals”). His Caesar is painted as cool (completely different than the Caesars in the "Asterix et Obelix" film series), quietly egomaniac and at the same time just, reasonable and humane. We hardly ever see Caesar crack but he’s got moments of silent grief or deafeningly intense menace and fury that come as a shock, since Caesar acts as if he already owns or knows everything there is and nobody can rattle him. Ironically, the moment Caesar is really immortalized is the moment he is ultimately humanized: Caesar’s assassination ends Season 1 with a bang (the depiction of the event in “Kalends of February” is one of the most powerful moments in the entire series and my favourite on-screen capture of the Roman Dictator’s death) and Hinds, drenched in blood and staggeringly feeble is a horrifying image: the political giant, whose shadow covered every single plot development so far is no more. Caesar’s death is the harbinger of chaos for political stability in “Rome” and the show in Season 2 is instantly elevated -despite the absence of one of its most talented thesps- to something even more eventful and gripping (I know many viewers disliked Season 2 due to its fast pace, elimination of important historical moments/figures and time-jumps but, drama-wise the show was never more action-packed, diverse and compelling). One of the innovations of “Rome” is that Caesar was definitely one of its main players, yet his screen-time was often sacrificed for the sake of lesser-known figures or semi-fictional creations such as Vorenus and Pullo, who were placed at the epicenter of the show’s dramaturgy at Caesar’s expense, due to their storyline having the benefit of surprise. Rodrigo Borgia is utilized similarly in “The Borgias” and Jeremy Irons is less present than one would think judging by the show’s posters or his top billing, but with one crucial difference: the show always returns to him no matter what, at least so far (in its first two seasons). While Caesar was constantly present even when he wasn’t on-screen, Pope Alexander VI frequently seems more occupied with frivolous endeavors than political schemes, which are often carried out by his sons or daughter BUT for the real, human drama the series constantly turns back to him to deliver. Whether it is the prospect of imminent doom or a father’s mourning and the remembrance of an entire lifetime of erroneous judgment, Irons amazes and proves that Hinds’ distant yet humane Caesar may have eventually turned out to be just another human after all but his often inhumane Rodrigo is always contradictory, often idiotic and prone to sinful desire, dangerous, arrogant, weak, tender, sentimental and in short deeply, uncompromisingly, consistently human.
Augustus Cesare And Juan Mess After Juanother
The younger generation that both Hinds and Irons often have to take a back seat for in their respective shows is at least as deserving and as professional as their elder cast-members: Ray Stevenson, Kevin McKidd, James Purefoy, Max Pirkis and Simon Woods in “Rome” and Francois Arnaud, David Oakes and Sean Harris in “The Borgias” are all magnificent. For those viewers who didn’t know of the real Octavian, the character’s arc in “Rome” may initially seem pointless: why focus so much on Caesar’s nephew, other than his value as a fun, interesting sidekick to Titus Pullo (and vice versa) or accessory to Caesar himself? Yes, the character is somewhat cold and hardly vulnerable, precocious and calculating beyond his age, which make for an interesting angle in an already varied palette of characters but the real potential and purpose of the character is slowly revealed towards the close of Season 1 and throughout Season 2. Both Max Pirkis as Young Octavian and Simon Woods as Octavian Caesar do a sensational job portraying the future Emperor Augustus, Pirkis lending him a sense of genuine industry and benevolent pedantry and Woods injecting him with a delicious passive-aggressive megalomania and boiling, suppressed urges. As Cesare Borgia in “The Borgias”, Arnaud fulfills a similar role, managing to come across as infinitely more likeable, though the character’s trajectory in Season 3 (and whatever form Season 4 may potentially appear in) will possibly imitate that of Octavian and test and strain the audience’s adoration of Cesare, even if Francois Arnaud has thus far achieved the impossible: everybody knows and dreads what Cesare is evidently capable of, yet almost nobody hates him. Much like “The Borgias” is at its best when the father-son duo of Rodrigo and Cesare are bonding and collaborating over various nefarious conspiracies or when Cesare and Lucrezia’s indecently close relationship is at the forefront, “Rome” establishes that the show’s beating heart is the friendship between the austere, staunch Catonian Lucius Vorenus and the carefree lover of life Titus Pullo. The two men are molded by one another’s influence and their lives change forever while “Rome” never forgets the initial prism through which it examined them: these men are soldiers who are having trouble getting accustomed to everyday business and domestic life, who don’t know quite how to fit in a society that’s seemingly at peace, well-to-do and civilized (at least by the era’s standards) but has a dark and hard-to-navigate underbelly of seething bloodlust, ruthless greed and wretched deception and who still consider an honorable battlefield as their one real home. Indirectly criticizing the terrors of war and the effects they have on the structure of human communities, “Rome” lets the characters get irrevocably messed up and witnesses their transformations from humans into monsters and back to humans, a process that ultimately leads to catharsis. The same catharsis isn’t afforded on “The Borgias” but maybe that’s for the best: Juan, in a stellar turn by David Oakes, is much more delicious as his completely unapologetic, chaotic self. While Vorenus and Pullo were salvaged by their loyalty to one another, Juan’s characterized by his animosity towards everyone but his father and his marginalization as a result of his inability to control his urges and handle the privilege and excess he was born to without trying to assert his superiority over everyone else. His character somewhat echoes that of Mark Antony in “Rome”, whom James Purefory turns into one of the most compelling antiheroes in a show full of them, in that Antony too is a seductively charming, voluptuous narcissist whose allegiances die with Caesar. Just like Juan, Antony lacks the control and cold resilience of the other schemers on the show and his pursuits are mostly carnal in nature -Atia and Cleopatra are the only people he seems to have an actual connection to-, while his reaction to adversity resembles that of the middle Borgia son: at the first sign of defeat or difficulty, the inner self-destructiveness in both Juan and Antony is triggered and much like petulant children who eternally put the blame for their own shortcomings on the hand fate has dealt them, they resort to debauchery and malice, which makes them at once fascinating and contemptible, sympathetic and abhorrent.
Caesar’s Wife Must Be Above Suspicion, But Only She
The characters in a period drama that are the most fun are definitely those falling under the “female schemer” category. The idea that in a male-dominated European past, a woman with few to no rights would have to resort to her feminine wiles to survive and prosper may sound extremely trite and it absolutely is. But it makes for brilliant television: I applaud “The Borgias” for not turning its primary female cast-members (Holliday Grainger, Joanne Whalley, Lotte Verbeek and Gina McKee) into stereotypical backstabbing b*tches but I can’t help but wonder whether the show would be so much more consistently entertaining if it had. That is made painfully evident in comparison to “Rome” and I am such a big admirer of the show’s female cast-members (Polly Walker, Lindsay Duncan, Kerry Condon, Indira Varma, Lyndsey Marshall, Zuleikha Robinson and Haydn Gwynne) not only because every woman there is fiercely passionate, loving, manipulative, controlling, domineering and dangerous all at once but because the HBO saga somehow figures the best way to allocate its limited screen-time so that every actress would get at least one chance at some point to sink her teeth into exquisitely meaty material: of all the above, even Gwynne who had the least on-screen appearances as Caesar’s devoted spouse, the imperious Calpurnia, became the highlight of the Season 2 premiere “Passover” for me, with her heart-breaking lamentation of Caesar providing her with ample opportunity to shine and amaze. Of all the women in “Rome”, the one that got the largest amount of screen-time and made the most out of it was definitely Walker as Atia. Initially representing nothing more than the traditional femme fatale trope, Atia swiftly transformed from a controlling matriarch to a lonely woman in love to a heart-broken harpy to a pitiful victim and back. Her delicious wit and sassy personality, her endless ambition and hopeless sentimentality for Antony facilitated her having one of the show’s most satisfying arcs and turned her from someone you love to hate into someone you are cheering for. Vanozza, on the other hand, one of the most likeable characters in “The Borgias”, is ably portrayed by Whalley as a clever and feisty woman (and her personality combines elements of the historical Vanozza with Adriana de Mila and Giulia Farnese, even if the latter exists separately in the show) but the script has her only popping up at its convenience, mostly for advice here and there and almost never renders her an important cog of the narrative, rather a mere plot device at best. Vanozza goes through serious emotional turmoil, especially in Season 1, and Whalley makes for a thoroughly fascinating watch but neither her explosions nor her stoic moments are as deep or as involving as what we witness Atia go through or even Servilia, the ultimate scorned woman: the latter effectively emerges as the arch-villain(ess) of “Rome” by being instrumental in the decision to assassinate Caesar and the event’s aftermath and Duncan is terrifyingly remote and icy as she cynically manipulates Brutus and Octavia, both of whom she’s professed to love. The remnants of warmth and very real human needs are distinguishable behind this character’s dark motives, frosty façade and longing for vengeance, just as they are for practically every other schemer on the show (such as Gaia or Cleopatra), a core of humanity and depth that’s only hinted at in Vanozza or Giulia, who would have been far more captivating constantly plotting against each other (like Atia and Servilia) or suffering the physical and psychological consequences of vying for the insatiable Pope’s undivided attention. Unquestionably, the most rounded female character and the one that gets the most screentime in “The Borgias” is Lucrezia: Grainger exhibits talent, measure and maturity beyond her acting experience and age and draws a very compelling portrait of the Renaissance lady, alternating between a victimized innocent girl and a relentless predator while the show sometimes wants her as sin personified and others as the very embodiment of warmth, class and intellect. The viewers’ sympathy falls easily on her even when she’s embarking on a dark mission, something that only happens for Niobe and Octavia in “Rome”, respectively portrayed by Indira Varma and Kerry Condon. The former plays a sort of Roman “Desperate Housewife” to perfection, a woman trying to juggle her battle-scarred husband who feels purposeless in peacetime and her shady past, her children and her social status. Varma imbues Niobe with a nobility above her lowborn status, which makes her doom all the more tragic. Condon is equally good as Atia and Servilia’s toy and while her importance somewhat diminishes in Season 2, the character displays signs of growth and becomes much more sarcastic and insightful, sometimes even playing mother and conspirator to Atia herself, but without losing her kindness and honesty. I wouldn’t be able not to mention the majestic Gina McKee in “The Borgias” as Caterina Sforza, who appears only in 5 episodes out of the 19 so far (and she has more than one scene only in 3 of them) but makes the most of her time and gives us a wonderfully understated and nuanced performance of a woman so believably larger-than-life, passionate and frigid, impulsive and calculating, noble and brutal, just and vindictive, a mother and a soldier, ultimately a man and a woman combined in one. Can’t wait to see more of her in Season 3.
Good Heroes Make the Best Villains
Perhaps the area that the two shows most differ is drawing their villains, as “The Borgias” seem to be full of them and “Rome” mostly devoid. In a show where practically everyone is a sympathetic villain, I applaud “The Borgias” for such indelibly vile creations such as Alfonso of Naples, Giovanni Sforza and King Charles VIII but “Rome” makes a stronger case mostly because it doesn’t readily present a villain but rather takes its heroes and turns them into one progressively over the course of the show. Pompey is perhaps the least developed character in the entire show and the antagonist in the first half of Season 1 in the sense that the viewer is inclined to side with Caesar not because Pompey feels to be at fault (both men crave the same thing, dominion over Rome, and do not differ that much personality-wise) but because Caesar is much more present on-screen and much more recognizable to a modern audience. Kenneth Cranham nevertheless and Karl Johnson as Cato (a character that's introduced to, among other things, emphasize the futility of obstinancy and blind loyalty to old beliefs) both do justice to their characters and magnificently play up both the likeable human qualities as well as their outrageously haughty and elitist campaigns. In fact when Pompey perishes in “Pharsalus” and Cato commits suicide in “Utica” we actually feel pity for them, a pity we can’t feel for Savonarola, whom “The Borgias” has made sure that we hate, portraying him as a gay-stoning, witch-burning lunatic. Steven Berkoff of course is excellent every step of the way and the show’s clever enough to emphasize the rather tried but still enjoyable “grotesque, otherworldly mad monk” stereotype but “Rome” is much more pleasingly complex as it pits its characters against one another simply in a relentless pursuit of the same thing, more power, and lets us form our judgments based on their personality and methods. Practically everyone is on a rise-and-fall trajectory in “Rome” and some characters function as antagonists but the writers give us at least a few reasons to see why the characters are what they are: Brutus, Caesar’s wounded surrogate son, played by Tobias Menzies, and Cicero, the serpentine and timorous Moderate that jumps from camp to camp without batting an eyelid (or perhaps, only by doing that, it’s almost the character’s tic), portrayed by David Bamber, are only two of the show’s characters that oppose the main stars, never quite forgiving Caesar for his leniency and mercy. Both suffer tragic (and tear-inducing) deaths, which once again underlines the show’s flawless casting decisions and the marvelous job the writers were doing when they were planning their arcs, emphasizing their devotion to their convictions (one of the show’s main, constantly present themes) rather than presenting them as mustache-twirling, one-dimensional villains. “The Borgias” has only one such character: Cardinal Della Rovere appears in every single episode of the show so far and has his own plot thread, initially as an embittered loser willing to play ball until his life is threatened, which turns him to a sanctimonious plotter, with shreds of deep, unwavering religious beliefs and breathtaking willpower behind his quest for retribution. In other words, Colm Feore portrays a role whose description could fit any of the show’s Borgia protagonists that he brilliantly complements.
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Part 3: Cinecitta Wasn't Built in a Day
The 100-million-dollar Question
Every show has its fair share of critics or detractors but the one focal point everyone that has watched even minutes of a “Rome” episode agree on is its impeccable quality in production, incomparable by 2005 standards. As a die-hard fan of the show that considers it (yes, I am never going to tire of repeating that) the best ever television historical epic and an instant classic that doesn’t feel outdated today (almost 10 years after it premiered), I always found it much easier to find faults with the show’s production than any other department of its sheer magnificence. “Rome” reportedly cost 100 million dollars per season which sounds like an awful lot and it is (the Netflix remake of my beloved “House of Cards” series costs 100 million dollars as well, albeit for two full seasons of 13 episodes each, and the industry is already acting as if it's something colossal). In a time (2005-2007) when “Boardwalk Empire” (70-80 million dollars per season), “Game of Thrones” (60 million) or “The Borgias” (45-50 million) were yet to be born in order to compare, “Rome” dominated the television epic landscape and convinced viewers and television experts that TV can be as ambitious as film and follow similar production regulations to attain the same level of visual and aesthetic excellence. “Rome” lacks nothing in that sense: from sets, to costumes, to VFX, to music and so on, the show’s perfectly capable (as most of the above-mentioned) of standing its own ground against any cinematic mega-production. Still, for a 100-million-dollar-per-season show I get the feeling that I am not witnessing every single dollar pop up on-screen: some (if not most) of that budget was spent paying a steep price for the gorgeous Mediterranean, Italian sun. Filming in the legendary (and legendarily expensive) Cinecitta studios availed the joint HBO-BBC-RAI production of authentic Italian settings, big facilities to accommodate and build its own world as well as access to native extras, what with notions of “bella figura” and all, which are all considerable benefits that contribute to the show’s atmosphere and flavor but, if you ask me, with 100 million dollars in budget the producers could have worked miracles had they chosen another country to shoot in, such as Hungary where “The Borgias” is filmed (nowadays though, I hear, Italy is much more welcoming for movie and television productions: “Borgia” with its mere 30 million euros budget was able to film a large part of its second season there). Ultimately one of the determining factors behind the show’s cancellation, this vast sum (mis)spent on the show’s creation doomed it (when production partner BBC dropped out of any future budgetary contribution beyond the show’s second -and final- season) and despite its almost unprecedented height (to my knowledge, only miniseries “Band of Brothers” had a larger budget, i.e. 125 million dollars), the show itself failed to build an ever-expanding and comprehensive, all-encompassing world that would ensure its survival (something that “Game of Thrones” has tremendously succeeded into, despite other weaknesses).
Rome in Middle Earth
Maybe the most hyped aspect of the production of “Rome” was its Forum set: a marvelously, painstakingly detailed set bustling with rapid activity, that jumps from the screen with color yet still feels fairly old and lived-in (just like everything in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy did, at Peter Jackson’s wise insistence), it actually is about 60% in size compared to the real thing (whereas, for example, the same set in 60’s extravaganza and Elizabeth Taylor starrer “Cleopatra” is three times the size of the actual location). Despite being the stage that ably and satisfactorily plays host to many of the show’s big action pieces (Mark Antony’s march on the Senate, Caesar and Octavian’s triumphs, Caesar’s funeral), at the end, just like Saint Peter’s Piazza in “The Borgias”, which fulfills a similar function, the Forum set lacks a sense of depth and doesn’t help make the geography of the show any clearer. Still, the Forum is much better detailed and actually more varied and beautiful, while it thankfully avoids the Piazza’s façade-like, cardboard surface, convincing the viewer of the buildings’ size and multiple sides and dimensions. The Rome set is enhanced by well-designed exteriors for Atia, Servilia and Caesar’s villas, who are all sadly reminiscent of one another, differing only in color and wall patterns, and the Aventine Hill region set, another large and oddly picturesque establishment of palisades and slums by the Tiber that copies the Forum’s worn texture but feels substantially poorer and even more dilapidated and chaotic (“The Borgias” have their own slum set, which is, surprisingly, very good, compared to the work done on the Piazza, but much smaller than the Aventine). The last major “Rome” set is the port in Alexandria and the entrance to the Pharaohs’ palace: a set deliberately designed to look as African and different to the marble halls of Rome as possible (in an era that Alexandria had yet to completely abolish its Ptolemaic, Hellenistic influences), the Alexandria exteriors (and interiors) feature interesting and bold choices in shape and colour that somehow still fail to convey the real splendor of the Egyptian monarchy (the actual palace of the Pharaohs constituted the ¾ of Alexandria) and don’t significantly expand the show’s world. “The Borgias” may not (yet) feel as sprawling as “Rome” or “Game of Thrones” but the plot often leaves the walls of Rome for the sake of Naples, Florence or Forli and especially the latter offers a broad view of a different architectural, maybe much more Spartan and battle-ready style, which is still interesting and eye-catching nonetheless and I get the sense that the show knows better how to make leaving the walls of Rome and the Vatican a big thing and anchor the episode around that change of scenery. Still, even though Season 2 revolves a lot around Florence, the Piazza of Santa Maria Novella set is much duller than the Alexandria one unfortunately and even more pedestrian than the Saint Peter's Piazza. When it comes to interiors, both shows fare much better opting for realistic opulence and not stylized magnificence (like “Borgia” does), so I am inclined to call this a tie.
There isn’t, right now at least, and there hasn’t been, so far at least, a show with costume design that can take on “The Borgias” and win (never mind what the Emmys would have you think). “Rome” isn’t an exception. April Ferry’s creations are wonderful and much thought (and money) has gone into them but no designer can really top Gabriella Pescucci’s work on “The Borgias” (which makes it all the more boring for me to touch upon costume design again and again in every comparative review when I already know that Pescucci is going to come out as the winner, for me at least). That being said, I think that Ferry and Pescucci have a similar approach to their designs, making terrifically detailed and flamboyant costumes that don’t feel inauthentic or inappropriately stylized, edgy or slightly futuristic (such as the ones in “The Tudors” and, to a lesser extent, in “Borgia”) and the strength of both women is deciding on and mixing the right materials, jewelry, fabrics and textures to compose pieces of clothing that are extremely and refreshingly varied and appealing to the eye. It is actually rather funny that both shows feature a vast ("The Borgias" especially) array of luxurious costumes, especially for the women, that only have the downside of not particularly differentiating between every-day, casual wear and formal attires (aside from the Pope’s liturgical outfits in “The Borgias”) and that burden falls, as the “Rome” commentary informed me, on hair styling. As is expected, elaborate, geometrical hairdos and outrageous color combinations are everywhere to be found when the show moves to an aristocratic parlor, almost rivaling the extremely voluminous and Bree-van-de-Kamp-perfect “The Borgias” hairstyles.
Since I can’t remember when I last watched a show with a title credits theme as pleasing as Trevor Morris’ in “The Borgias” when it first premiered in 2011, it’s refreshing to (even partially) re-watch a show that features an equally artful and tone-setting opening, dressed with such an evocative and characteristic (somewhat Eastern, in my ears at least) theme. Jeff Beal’s work in “Rome” is marvelous, maybe better than Morris’ overall (though the “The Borgias” theme remains a favorite), and I was very pleasantly surprised when I heard Caesar’s triumphal music adjusted for Octavian’s triumph to sound much more ominous and tremor-inducing. When it comes to the other areas of production that define a show’s essence, I’d say that “Rome” doesn’t significantly differ from “The Borgias” in the sense that, cinematography-wise, both shows strive for an earthy, grounded style (“Rome” more than “The Borgias”, as the latter is the more likely to infrequently break into more cartoonish, comic-book style action) and an oddly similar Mediterranean look (“The Borgias” may be filmed in Hungary and “Rome” in Italy, making the latter much more authentic-looking-and-feeling but the producers of the first have made commendable efforts to make it look as lush and sun-bathed as possible).
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Part 4: Writers on the Storm
Sword and S(c)andal
It’s true -unfortunately for art and its reputation of ripping off real stories- that fiction can hardly be nastier than reality and that history is so genuinely gripping and horrific by itself that any kind of adaptation would only mitigate its documented, factual monstrosity. That is definitely the case with both the story of the lives of the Borgias (though I could quite easily argue that there were far more atrocious Popes, after reading John Julius Norwich’s “The Popes: A History”) and the last years of the post-Etruscan Roman Republic, but to claim that anything less than a totally accurate retelling of the events would rob an adaptation of its intensity and, by extent, its entertainment value would only be partly sincere. Yes, most often, historical epics either in film or television tend to dumb down, romanticize or mangle historic truth for the sake of commercial concerns but making something more accessible to an audience or more consistently -even inaccurately- dramatic and fun isn’t wrong in itself, as long as it’s dictated by creative approach and not marketing. First of all, a completely straight and fully-attentive-to-written-historic-fact narrative would require zero storytelling talent (merely good researching and organizational skills), would involve little to not creativity and would most likely resemble a docudrama (not that those are without creative virtue but their purpose is incompatible with standing the test of time as an artistic creation) or something suitable to be used in a class as a lively history guide (but, as everyone can imagine, blood and boobies would then be out of the question!). Additionally, not a single part of history, as documented, can be considered canon: Historian A, let’s call him Dr. Mainstream, will support one specific theory of how things really happened that most people will endorse and Historian B, Dr. Radical, will support another, at the very least partly alternative scenario of how things happened and will claim that he’s based that on new findings aided by modern technology or different sources, so who’s to define which version is the accurate one after all? And there’s always the question of sources: Should one go back to original, contemporary sources, tainted as they are with subjectivity and pathos or a more distant point-of-view, hampered by lack of proximity to the time and/or place where events took place and unconquerable practical difficulties in the pursuit of truth? And third and most important, if a writer/producer decides that he needn’t look any further than history to discover and be inspired by the most captivating tales, then he should surely tap into his own taste, experience and fascination with the material, which will help him generate a unique rendition of events, one that will copy no other previous one and make sure that it raises the bar for any future one. I have often alluded to the fact that I may not be entirely happy with every single change Neil Jordan’s made to the most famous stories surrounding the Borgia clan but the fact that he hasn’t abstained from some very controversial alterations (and some very bold ones are yet to come if promotional material for Season 3 is any indication) is a great advantage for the show: when the next project dealing with the Borgias -or any other period, family or historical figure for that matter- can just be around the corner (the show itself has to compete, so to speak, with “Borgia”, a very different narration of the Borgia papacy, running almost concurrently in Europe, which I can’t wait to compare “The Borgias” to in an upcoming review) and will potentially have the benefit of better production standards (which doesn’t necessarily mean a larger budget, merely more advanced filming equipment and VFX technology, which are going through a golden age and facing exponential progress), the only real choice a creator is left with, should he want for his work to resonate as a decent, classic or even definitive (in terms of fan and critics appreciation, not authenticity-wise) version of the history-inspired events, is shedding light on a previously unseen side of the story and using his own imagination to craft an original version of the plot. Thankfully, both “The Borgias” and “Rome” have creators that make the necessary choices in adapting history so that when the next retelling of their respective stories emerges, it can’t have possibly sprung from the same mind.
Advanced Roman History
When a writer is dealing with an extremely well-known story, as is the case with “Rome” (and less with “The Borgias”), it is far more difficult to ignite interest and generate suspense, especially when almost everyone knows that whatever is happening on-screen is building up to a shockingly violent moment, a momentous and archetypal political assassination, Gaius Julius Caesar’s death, or one of the most famous and heart-breaking romances ever (Anthony and Cleopatra’s). Thankfully, “Rome” knows how to throw many surprises the viewers’ way and that is partially achieved through introducing and inserting into almost every single one of the show’s plot-threads two part real part fictional characters, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, and partially by subtly (or not so subtly sometimes) altering the circumstances or the outcome of various history-established events. Yes, that’s the very definition of historical inaccuracy in a historical television show but it is completely immaterial. Why? Because “Rome” provides intelligent entertainment, compelling action and gripping narration. Ably keeping track in every single episode of the dozens of central characters (in a much better way than “Game of Thrones”, albeit with half the number of roles, which is still quite a lot) and setting up their arcs so that they are interwoven and the characters interact and mix in the most unforeseeable combinations, “Rome” offers an entirely new level of complexity and storytelling adequacy. More than that, “Rome” shouldn’t simply be considered a marvel in plotting: the show tackles character development with the same level of depth, unpredictability and relentlessness. Surprisingly full with real and relatable emotions and troubling, uncompromising dilemmas of an existential, religious or practical nature, “Rome” has characters going through constant swifts in their status, their political or religious allegiances, their loyalty to their spouses or masters, swifts that enable the series to elaborately and eloquently talk about instantly recognizable and utterly modern subjects, such as love, despair, ambition and loneliness, witnessed in a volatile world that boils with cutthroat violence and astounding inequality. “Rome” doesn’t avoid some historical show tropes, to be sure, (candle-lit intrigue, femme fatales and manipulative matriarchs, seductive aristocratic bastards and noble plebeians, pet assassins and poisoners and so on) but every cliché is turned on its head as characters are allowed to breath and evolve and go places they don’t normally go in the genre. “Rome” can’t afford to dispense with action and plot motion and every episode has its fair share of story developments and more conventional twists but the show admirably manages to find time and space for its characters, even if it initially seems like they are just another plot device or ratings gimmick to reach the sex and violence quota HBO or the historical show genre requires: the completely fictional Atia-Antony romance for example is bound to be seen by some viewers as just an excuse for Polly Walker and James Purefoy to undress and for some others as the emotional core of many an episode and reason to watch all on its own. But the reason for such a coupling, courtesy of the creators, becomes clear as Antony is forced, deep into Season 2, into marrying Octavia, his lover Atia’s daughter and his political partner Octavian’s sister, which is something that really happened and its significance is augmented by Antony and Atia’s romantic past (as well as Octavian wanting to eradicate his feelings of awkwardness at the sight of his on-off nemesis/ally fornicating with his widowed mother). Additionally, one would think that Antony will resume his affair with Atia (which of course he does) and keep his marriage to Octavia white but in an almost “The Sopranos”-esque way, when you thought you had seen the worst of his lecherous behavior, he doesn’t really have any qualms about sampling Octavia! But the show’s totally purposeful adaptation or storytelling choices don’t end there: Having Servilia, Caesar’s scorned lover, as the mastermind behind his eventual assassination may feel like it’s trivializing the matter or downplaying the political reasons and envy of the other power-players in the Senate behind the hideous act but it really just successfully ties that development to earlier as well as future ones (after the deed, Servilia emerges as one of the most cold-blooded and enduring villains of the show) and adds a necessary level of suspense to perhaps one of the most widely known events in antiquity. Finally, when Levi, the brother of the series resident assassin, the Jew Timon (whom Lee Boardman makes absolutely likeable), is introduced into the show and starts lecturing his brother on his servitude, the episode’s pace seems to slow down but the character is not without purpose: in a world that reeks of filth and is in desperate need of a new set of values and keeping in mind that Levi comes from the East, the role signifies the new Judeo-Christian ethics that are about to dawn. Moreover, Timon is given a chance to shine by rebelling against Atia, the object of his affections, who treats him like dirt but also occasionally rewards with sex, as the fiery, mean female that she is (so different than his kind, modest wife, perhaps the show’s attempt at subtly exploring why men are attracted by b*tches). The series doesn’t spell all this out or patronizes the viewer by telling him what to think of the seemingly random psychological stuff but tremendous writing, aided by amazing acting, helps the material jump off the screen and gain a new-found importance all in itself.
Sense and Senselessness
Writing in “The Borgias” could be said to have a thing or two to envy from “Rome” but the show is much more idiosyncratic and darkly humorous and that is a pro important enough to compensate for some of its other flaws in that department: creator Neil Jordan is absolutely fascinated by some of the broader ideas and the general atmosphere of the late Medieval/early Renaissance times (actually, much more than the specific details of the Borgia reign, that would be, nonetheless, more than enough to spark intrigue for any television show to mine) and his writing reflects that and though it stays on course, going through the most important events during the Borgia papacy, Jordan’s focus is on symbolism and modern themes and references. Jordan successfully structures the show on a triangular axis: First of all, he makes sure he can give his leading man Jeremy Irons better and more challenging material than it is readily apparent. Let me explain: the show may frequently seem like it’s neglecting him or giving him lighter and easier stuff to handle than the heavy drama or juicy intrigue that falls on the shoulders his co-cast-members. Irons’ Rodrigo often feels (and is) aloof, goofy and not even the most lucid or brilliant man in the room (during an age that television is dominated by super-intelligent and insightful antiheroes, such as Nucky Thompson in “Boardwalk Empire”, Walter White in “Breaking Bad” or Tyrion Lannister in “Game of Thrones”) and the reason behind it is quite simple: Rodrigo Borgia is just a man in power and “The Borgias” is a convincing and realistic portrait of a man who only partially merits his highest of positions, like many modern politicians. Secondly, Jordan and the show rely very much on the chemistry-filled relationship between siblings Cesare and Lucrezia to provide much-needed emotion in a universe that is populated by characters that you otherwise don’t really care about. Though it has been hinted from the very beginning of the series that this relationship is indecent (and Season 3 promises to deliver hard proof), the sibling relationship is still sweet and touching, as the two young people try to navigate a cruel world that doesn’t forgive privilege or their father’s duplicitous power-grab and that has forced them to distrust everyone but blood. And finally, Jordan is very apparently titillated at the thought of an era so productive in incomparable monuments art and even technology, yet so wantonly bloodthirsty, greedy, uncivilized and explosive. Though I’ve often complained that Jordan’s Renaissance world doesn’t seem downtrodden and volatile enough, it is sensible that everything is seen through the eyes of the Borgias, secluded as they are in their palatial sphere, their bubble that substitutes poverty with suffocating emptiness, actual danger with sexual or political intrigue, real problems with rich people problems and is, as a result, occasionally filled with elitism, irresponsibility, debauchery, indifference and a casual, frivolous disregard for human life. The show’s formula is an overwhelmingly successful one to be sure, even if the rating don’t instantly reflect that, and despite the fact that one can easily poke holes in some of the show’s secondary plot-threads and characters, “The Borgias” is, quite like “Rome”, the thinking man’s historical show and the feeling man’s also as Jordan’s crafted characters not only believably human but also surprisingly humane: like him, most of his characters are more often than not gentle-seeming, soft-spoken and mild-mannered, but that shouldn't fool us into forgetting that all of them conceal depths of megalomania and bloodlust and are capable of horrific decisions and deeds. Fortunately, the show lets you judge them by your own tastes and criteria and that is to an extent achieved by making them eternally likeable. Since we are allowed to spend much time with these people, thank God that Jordan’s made them approachable, charming and oddly relatable. One of the weakest parts of the show’s writing, its plotting, is also alleviated by fine character work and by the fact that Jordan, primarily a filmmaker at heart, sees the series as a whole (and it makes much more sense for us to see it as one, too): Season 1 may have felt serene and less eventful in comparison to Season 2 (and the latter could be eclipsed by Season 3, if promotional material is any indication) but seeing it as just the introductory chapter in a larger saga about the Borgia family, one understands that Jordan’s labored to give as varied as possible a flavor to each one of the show’s seasons, struggling to keep every moment relatively fresh and from becoming repetitive.
Though it could be said that every historical dramatization is similar in the way it handles historical fact (mainly by either omitting characters and events or rearranging them or even outright fabricating others), “Rome” and “The Borgias” are eerily similar in that respect. Both shows know exactly how many real characters are indispensable and can be successfully incorporated into the plot and how many are dramatically uninteresting and would merely drag the show down and overcomplicate the plot without the show being able to capitalize on that and feature resolution (though “The Borgias” has so far made some sacrifices in characters that I wouldn’t have minded seeing appear in some form in future episodes, just for the sake of having them). Various anti-Caesar conspirators or Brutus’ wife Porcia (whose role in the assassination plot is somewhat reincarnated in Brutus’ mother, Servilia) in “Rome” and Adriana de Mila, Rodrigo’s cousin and Lucrezia’s governess as well as mother-in-law to Rodrigo’s lover Giulia Farnese, and miscellaneous cardinals in “The Borgias” are only some of the characters both shows choose to forget about so that it can focus on what they deem expedient, namely advancing their plots and developing their main characters. “Rome” and “The Borgias” are even similar in how they choose to include fictional figures in almost every major plotline or to set it up in a way that even people that know the real story can be interested to watch despite their knowledge of the outcome. Sometimes successfully (every single fictional character in “Rome”, a largely fictionalized Micheletto in “The Borgias”) and sometimes not (Ursula Bonadeo, the Pallavicini brothers in “The Borgias”) both shows indulge in that device a lot and at least craft a version of history that doesn’t resemble any previous one and is hard to imitate.