‘Rome’ a challenge for HBO empire

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Rome wasn’t built in a day, but HBO’s “Rome” looks like it took decades to create. The pay network reportedly poured $100 million into re-creating the Roman Empire in all its imperfect glory, and viewers can see where every nickel went this weekend.

The promising new drama debuts at 9 p.m. Sunday, with the hopes of the network riding on it. HBO sure could use a breakout hit to make up for such recent ratings disappointments as “K Street,” “Carnivale” and “The Comeback.”

Even if future episodes match the first installment’s sense of wonder and place, it could be a tough sell. Audiences may be burned out on toga epics, witness the less than blockbuster turnout for “Kingdom of Heaven,” “King Arthur” and ABC’s recent “Empire” miniseries.

“Rome’s” first installment does more than set the sumptuous stage. It plants the seeds of bloodshed between long-standing friends Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) and Pompey (Kenneth Cranham), a story arc said to dominate the first season.

“Rome” tells that compelling story alongside a fictional one, that of two soldiers coming home after years of battle.

It’s no small feat marrying history and fiction, but the show appears up to the challenge.

The saga opens with Caesar returning to Rome after spending eight years battling, and ultimately conquering, Gaul. His legend has only grown in his absence, but so, too, has the rancor of his foes. Cultural divisions between the poor and the wealthy have intensified in his absence, and many are starting to question the wisdom of Caesar’s military adventures.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned soldiers (Kevin McKidd as Lucius Vorenus and Ray Stevenson as Titus Pullo) set off on what seems to be a fool’s errand to retrieve Caesar’s standard, a golden eagle representing his strength and power.

With “Rome,” we’re spared the foul language of HBO’s revisionist Western “Deadwood,” and the performances uniformly cast us into the far past. It helps immeasurably that there isn’t a household name in the lot to jolt us back to modernity. Polly Walker is the most beguiling cast member here, playing a keeper of Roman social conventions.

The story’s density demands attentive viewing, and while we’re always ready to applaud TV that doesn’t talk down to us, HBO is doing itself no favors with such a dry introduction. We do get a nude scene, by now obligatory for cable originals, and a few battle sequences that are both intense and realistic.

To read the HBO site dedicated to “Rome” would leave one thinking the series will be Hollywood’s umpteenth attempt to dethrone the current administration. Indeed, one scene in Sunday’s episode does more than hint at political allegories to come. A senator decries Caesar’s “illegal war” against Gaul, and his heated rhetoric could have come from the Huffington Post Web site.

“Rome,” a co-production of HBO and the BBC (who last teamed for the 2001 miniseries “Band of Brothers”), gives new dramatic life to the network’s original lineup by peering provocatively into the past.

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