Et Tu, U.S.A.?

If I were in a normal soap like 'The O.C.' I wouldn't have to wear a stupid tunic: A mopey Gaius Octavian (Max Pirkis)

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In the grim hills of a distant land, the new leader of the civilized world leans back in repose as members of the native insurgency force--sometimes, actually, people captured utterly at random--are regularly tortured to glean information about a recent symbolic attack on the occupying forces. Back home, this wartime leader is considered a friend of the common, dirt-spattered man, though up close he's a cold, smug, manipulative snob. On the home front, the middle class calms its wartime nerves by immersing itself in lowbrow entertainment--dick jokes seem to span the class divide. Religious fundamentalism of a kooky, superstitious nature is on an uptick, the cosmopolitan onrush of races makes for many subtly hued people, and the real estate bubble is expanding more cruelly than ever. The elephant in the room is that you can see in everyone's eyes--look! even the children--that they know there's soon to be a great big Fall.

HBO's uncommonly gripping Rome is a brash rejoinder to the paradigm of the sword-and-sandal epic. The pleasure of movies set in biblical or imperial antiquity, for some of us, at least, is in their shameless theatricality. Look at the throbbing gold and black in the Muslim-style patterns of Boris Leven's sets for the lovably laughable Silver Chalice with Paul Newman; or the beautiful green gas of death that haunts the Passover set piece in DeMille's Ten Commandments--the fun of these period pieces is in their wild stylization. Everything in them has the make-believe quality of a squad of overqualified British actors arching their eyebrows on the bridge of a sci-fi starship. Rome goes the other way. It's as shit-stained and outhouse-smelly as Oz. When a Roman noble indulges in a bit of crackpot idolatry, like Janice Soprano giving in and paying for a psychic reading, the director, Michael Apted, focuses on the death twitch of an ox slaughtered for that noble's improved karma--and on the twenty buckets of blood that pour out of the ox onto the noble's prayerful head. What's the deal with all this brutal naturalism? The point is to make the contrast between the Romans' gutter squalor and gated communities so ripe, we can see our reflection in it.

The first two episodes of Rome are not long on human interest in the usual sense; we're sent headlong into a brace of characters we can't really make out as people, though, wittily, the makers are careful to track the finest class distinctions in every introductory scene. What comes through is the Juno-sized comedy of a multi-tiered society in denial of its imminent meltdown--a Nashville set in Pompeii. Ambitious low-ranking politicians hustle for crudely cobbled coalitions as ex-slaves practice the university accent of a successful lobbyist, i.e., starvation-wage lackey. The makers' punctilious research into the minutest details of daily life creates a succulent parody of our own daily bread and circuses--the tiny trends and lifestyle conceits that distract us from the gathering storm. (The wittiest: a wealthy matron offering a hip new platter of nouvelle cuisine: "A dormouse, perhaps?") As we sort out the competing regions and warring factions of status-conscious aspirants, a single, poignant friendship looms in the foreground.

One of Rome's creators, John Milius, is Hollywood royalty in exile. A gun nut, right-winger, and screenwriting wunderkind of the early '70s, Milius has been little in evidence since his last big hit, the '80s Cold War scare movie Red Dawn. A safari-clad bear-man who may be the movie colony's all-time greatest raconteur--Google the phrases "John Milius," "Oliver Stone," and "Orange Julius" to see what I mean--Milius has left his fingerprints on the series' most distinctive relationship. In seeming homage to the friendship between John Wayne and Robert Mitchum in Howard Hawks's elegiac El Dorado, Milius and company posit a stiff, middle-class, principled centurion (Kevin McKidd) against his lieutenant, a sexy plebeian brawler (Ray Stevenson) who is his unhappy sidekick. Milius is a fan of high moral rectitude in unlikely places, and championed John Ford's law-and-order code in the lawless '70s and '80s. Here, he uses these archetypes--the prig and the conscripted fuck-up--to create a shadow of a moral compass in a debauched universe. McKidd and Stevenson deliver such charismatic performances, you want the makers to turn Rome into their own private Western. (Their resemblance to a poor man's Daniel Craig and Clive Owen, respectively, certainly doesn't hurt.)

There is only one major misstep in the first two episodes--the surely HBO-dictated presence of a sort of Livia Soprano figure, the demonic matriarch played by Polly Walker. A smiling hypocrite who picks and prods at schemes as if peeling grapes, she seems imported to spice up an overwhelmingly male-dominated world, and her connivance is as out-of-place in its campiness as Livia's Bette Davis number was in The Sopranos. Far more interesting is McKidd's mysteriously ambi-racial wife (Indira Varma), who seems capable of keeping a secret. But the pleasures to be had from Rome are not of the soap-operatic, what's-gonna-happen-next variety. The fun comes from seeing a deeply imagined world that seems in some ways to be as alien from ours as a distant planet, yet which really is a sly parody of our own in all its particulars--down to a spoiled rich kid whining at a dinner party about his society's treatment of "the homeless." At a certain point, you feel the artists involved must have been suppressing their snickers at the show's "secret" allegory. Could daring HBO create a series about a fear-addled, materially glutted, ethically challenged, world-plundering Western superpower you might be familiar with? Probably not. But in a toga and flip-flops, who's to say no?

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