All this week, we’re taking a look at the past, present, and future of Peak TV, the current, overabundant TV golden age in which we live.
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?).