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

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?).

Rome wasn’t just smart and beautifully crafted, it was fun. And in proving that you could move towards the prestige TV era without losing the goofy dumb charm and lurid sleazy sex appeal of the classic TV era, Rome offered a blueprint to more shows than just Game Of Thrones. What was The People Vs. OJ Simpson, after all, but prestige TV that also embraced its own schlockiness?

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!

Rome never did that. One of my favorite things about it was that it felt, and there’s no other way to put this, casually debauched. Atia (Polly Walker) climbing out of her tub in the first episode, completely naked, shot from the front, just standing there while she gives orders to her slaves and hectors her kids, is to this day some of the most matter-of-fact nudity ever seen on TV. There’s an unbelievable scene later in the season in which Atia, a character who could be charming even after ordering the murder of her daughter’s husband because he wasn’t important enough, actually congratulates her son for getting buggered by Caesar in a closet. (That’s what she thinks, anyway, he actually was trying to keep Caesar’s epilepsy secret while he was having a seizure.) “You seduced him, you sly little fox!” she says, as if getting porked by a grown man is the height of boys-will-be-boys teen mischief.

“Not even Servilia could compete with a soft young boy like you.”

I’m not sure even Game of Thrones ever had a scene that so charmingly combined debauchery, bad parenting, and realpolitik. What a show.

Of course, the show fell off a bit in the second season, but how could it not, under the strange circumstances? Rome was actually shot as a mini-series, turned into an indefinitely-running serialized television, then cancelled after the second season had been shot but before it had aired. Looking back now, it’s like one of those happy accidents of history, like corn flakes or penicillin. We didn’t really know we wanted it until it happened, and then it was just too ahead of its time to last long. We didn’t know how valuable serialized television could be. Like Rome‘s sets, the idea was out there, but the infrastructure hadn’t been built yet. At least, not for each episode to be a cultural event like Game Of Thrones is now.

Some of Rome‘s actors (almost all of whom were stellar, it must be said) are naturally a little miffed at Game of Thrones getting to have everything they wanted, largely by following the path Rome forged. As James Purefoy (who was especially great, as Marc Antony) told Empire:

[Kevin] McKidd and I had lunch the other day, and I said to him, “Have you been asked to do Game Of Thrones?” And he said, “I’d never do it. Because they stole our f*cking show.” He worked out that if Rome had run for the entire seven seasons that it should have run, we would only have finished it last year [in 2013]. And he feels that HBO did Game of Thrones instead of us, so they stole our show. I kind of agree with him. I won’t be doing Game Of Thrones, even if they ask me.

Purefoy later clarified that he was mostly kidding around. (I bet he’d still do Game of Thrones, if they asked him, just like Ciaran Hinds took a part as Mance Rayder.) But at this point it almost goes without saying that Game of Thrones wouldn’t be what it is if Rome hadn’t come first.

As creator Bruno Heller told Entertainment Weekly:

“They didn’t take our spot. They learned a lot from a business commercial sense, what not to do. Rome was the first show HBO shot out of country with large budget that was period. The mistakes we made are the mistakes Game of Thrones learned from. Many of the directors and producers are the same. Thrones is a brilliant show, brilliantly executed. One of the reasons it will continue is there’s a series of books that assure the powers that be that you have a structure. One of the challenges from HBO’s point of view was Rome had a large and ambitious structure but we were making it up as we went along instead having those wonderful books.”

“Just like many of the other shows in the same class, [Rome is] a show that ended early rather than got strung out and had the juice squeezed out of it,” Heller says. “It ended for reasons other than running out of things to say. I loved it. I thought it was a great show. There’s a sense that there’s unfinished business.”

Whether or not Rome ever comes back in some form or not, I’ll always love it just the same, a show that burned hot, lived fast, died young, and left a good-looking corpse. A really expensive-looking corpse.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.