The secret to some of the best HBO series is dirt. Not filthy language, not nudity--actual dirt. The muck in the streets of Deadwood, Tony Soprano's soldiers exhuming an incriminating body, the Fisher family tossing shovelfuls in the grave as Six Feet Under buried its lead character Nate--all this soil embodies the network's insistence on deprettifying its subjects.
So when HBO set out to make a drama about Rome in the time of Julius Caesar, Job One was to dirty up the Eternal City. Rome (Sundays, 9 p.m. E.T., debuts Aug. 28) eschews the popular white-marble myth. "Part of the brief was to create an image of Rome nobody has seen before," says executive producer Frank Doelger. Historic Rome, he says, was a teeming capital full of color, pornographic graffiti and coed public latrines. It was crowded, relentlessly commercial (a town crier's announcement in one episode ends with an ad for a flour miller) and, above all, filthy. Instructing the set designers, says Doelger, "I told them to think about India--Bombay or Calcutta." It's as if you don't just see this Rome, you smell it.
That squalor did not come cheap. The set alone, at Rome's Cinecittà studio lot, cost $13 million and the 12-episode first season, $100 million. Shooting began in March 2004 but was delayed as HBO shuffled producers and reshot chunks of the first three episodes (directed by filmmaker Michael Apted). It also had the largely British cast drop the regional accents they had used to distinguish the classes, deeming them too inscrutable for Americans.
The completed Rome is still a class-conscious story, splitting focus between historical figures and hoi polloi. Its overarching story is the power struggle between Caesar (Ciarán Hinds), who has just defeated the Gauls, and his onetime friend Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham). Season 1 traces Caesar's rise to power and the events leading to his assassination. (None of this should be a spoiler, unless the educational system has truly failed us.)
We follow the events through the eyes of Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), two lower-class soldiers in Caesar's 13th Legion. This plebeian odd couple--Pullo's a rogue, Vorenus a by-the-book prig--offer grounding and some nicely turned comic relief, as when Pullo, jailed for disobeying an order, petitions Forculus, a Roman god of doors. "I will kill for you a fine white lamb," he promises. "Or failing that--if I couldn't get a good one at a decent price--then six pigeons." But the scripts resort to contrivance and coincidence to keep the pair at the center of events. In Episode 2, a confrontation that precipitates Caesar's coming to power turns out to have been caused by a bar brawl Pullo got into. It's all a bit too Forrestus Gumpus.