Show Don’t Tell: How Roman Empire Underwhelms

Imagine Game of Thrones and your favorite Ken Burns documentary had a baby.  That baby would definitely be Roman Empire now available for streaming on Netflix.  Not all babies are cute and cuddly, however.  Roman Empire manages to be both entertaining and befuddling at each turn.  

The question I found myself in the first fifteen minutes of this series is: “What is Roman Empire trying to be?”  Within moments it’s clear that it’s not a comedy.  All the seriousness of twelve heart attacks, check.  So then, I felt it must be an historical drama with perhaps an HBO budget.  Could be interesting *strokes beard absentmindedly*, but is that truly what it is?

Marcus Aurelius played by John Bach

Ever the ponderer that I am, recently I was perusing Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. The stately gentleman had thoughts on a wide variety of topics, from the Games to ruling an empire. Looking back, this was perhaps a fortuitous endeavor, as whilst browsing Netflix suggested documentaries, one such title caught mine eye. Roman Empire. With a slight amount of joy, I wondered aloud, “Perhaps even Marcus Aurelius is in this one!” 

How Does Roman Empire Disappoint?

Expectations, my good man.  From the introductory narration by Sean Bean himself, and the pure aesthetics of Commodus’ fight in the arena.  It seemed great.  It seemed right.  It seemed to befit the very empire upon which this show depicts.  Then the historians happened.

How do historians ruin a historical drama? By talking, that’s how.  My initial confusion as to what type of show this would be was further compounded when academic fellows started belting out hyperbole about the emperor, his son and all manner of things Roman.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Sex is an intimate thing, yeah.  A conversation between one person and their counterpart.  Imagine for a moment that you’re heavily invested in the moment, giving it your best go.  Then imagine that three white-bread academics are sitting in the corner talking about how well your thrusts are times and how your performance is the best they’ve seen in ages.

Kills the mood.  That’s exactly what these talking heads do to Roman Empire.  Narration is one thing, handled exceptionally by the master of the English language Sean Bean.  Yes, I could mention him all day.  You always be in my heart, Ned.  Think of Sean Bean as the foreplay.  He gets you all warmed up and ready to enjoy the main event.  You get started, everything is peachy, but then it’s those three guys in the corner again.  Your dangling participle droops and it’s all just a crapshoot.

But Wait There Are More Metaphors

Roman Empire is a beautiful woman.  It rolls its hips just so with its vivid cinematography, apt uses of lighting, and incredibly realistic clothing; from battle gear to peasant garb.  She flirts with you, getting your hopes up.  This will be the show that truly captures the Roman Empire.  Nah.  Not even close.

What we find in the first few episodes is a case of identity crisis.  Is this a drama featuring paid actors and actresses, or is this just one elaborate visual representation for our historians and their history books?  What, if any, creative license is being allowed here.  Tons.

How Hyperbole Ruins a Documentary

That’s the thing about ancient history.  So much of it has been lost to time, or simply went through the various propaganda machines, coming out a much different experience than what truly occurred.  While we will never know the truth, it’s clear that the showrunners wanted there to be an outline of events that must be followed.  Such as, we know that it was recorded that Marcus Aurelius led the war against the Germanic tribes for over a decade.  We also know that he spent some amount of time grooming his son, Commodus, to become emperor.  The specifics of each of those are lost to time, sadly, so there are gaps in what could be considered a narrative.

Since many of the finer details of Commodus’ reign or even Julius Caesar’s past are a matter of speculation, Roman Empire leaves all the important conversation down to semi-meaningful facial expressions.  If it is to be implied that Marcus Aurelius does not think his son is worth his soggy marbles, this is conveyed by a long, lingering, disappointing stare.  The director supposed that if Aurelius were to actually chastise his son, we as the audience would wonder what his historical reference is.  

What’s done behind closed doors in this show is almost entirely meaningful eye-rolls and imagery left to interpretation.  These body language gap-fillers are meant to present you with a beautiful world with a serviceable narrative.  In hindsight, it feels more like an amateur play with interruption for narration than a big-budget Netflix documentary.

Impure of Purpose

I really do want to point out that the fight scenes and stray nipples are welcome and appreciated.  They really did take some pages out of Spartacus’ playbook.  The thing about Spartacus was that we knew it was fiction.  It was as real as anything Shakespeare wrote.  Roman Empire passes itself off as a professor with a Ph.D.  Who also fights bears and seduces women with ease.  Hey, AMC, don’t you think that would make a good follow-up act to Breaking Bad?  No? Alright.

Well basically, the show doesn’t know what it is.  A documentary is not the sum of its chapters, but whether is conveyed something meaningful.  Roman Empire does not.

Why The Office Reboot Is A Terrible Idea

The Western world runs on nostalgia.  Fond, if not flawed feelings about a time gone by. Remember the first time you heard your favorite song?  Wasn’t everything different then? Simpler, even.  You were younger, full of hope, rocking out to “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails.  Okay, maybe you like a K-pop sensation instead. Sure, sure, fine.  My point is, we all yearn for how things used to be.  Back in the latter years of the 90s when I was still but a wee boy, there was a radio station called 99X.  It was cleverly 99.9FM in Central Illinois.  I’ve no idea if the station still exists, and I refuse to Google it.  Don’t tell me what to do.

99X would play a top nine countdown at nine o’clock every night.  As this was past our assigned bedtime and listening to music that was very much full of edited profanity, we kept it quiet.  As I recall, it was something to look forward to; something we could also discuss with friends at school.  ‘Twas something for my brothers and I to bond over.  What was the reality of it, though?  We were already half asleep already, listening to a radio with no subwoofer on such low volume that it was impossible to hear the lyrics.  Our necks were fastened into uncomfortable positions as we listened, and it’s quite possible that I don’t remember single damn song we heard.

How does this relate to a The Office reboot?  Take my example above of nostalgia and imagine I presently corralled my two brothers at 9pm on some bunk beds and listened eagerly for the countdown to begin.  First of all, we’re all in the 30s range now, so that’s weird.  Second, who even uses radios anymore?  Okay, I do, but that’s because my car doesn’t have an auxiliary input.  Awkward things happen when you try to force an event to occur just because you remembered it being fun.

I love The Office.  I still watch it as often as I did when it was airing.  It’s never lost its appeal, just like Seinfeld, Friends, and Cheers.  It has aged, just like those other two giants of evening television.  The references are outdated, as is the technology represented in the show.  The Office is a classic because it doesn’t try to be anything other than a show about a paper company.  The showrunners aren’t trying to sell you on anything.  There is no theme; no message you must somehow understand.  The Office is as pure as it is simple comedic gold, and that is why we cannot let a reboot happen.

Why Shouldn’t We Try to Reboot The Office?

What’s that, you say?   Stop speaking so loudly.  Anyways, loud people aside, we have ample evidence that a continuation of the series is a no good, terrible, terrible idea.  Just look at the ninth season of The Office.  The showrunners had lost Steve Carell at the end of season seven and more or less tried not to sink the series in the eight season.  The eighth season was pretty crap overall, but characters like Robert California and cameos from David Wallace really helped it from being a full-on stinker.

Then the ninth season happened.  This epic season directly began with Jim and Pam admitting that nothing new nor interesting was ever going to happen in their lives.  Pam literally told the camera, “Don’t you have all the footage you need already?  It’s only a paper company.”  This fourth wall break was obtuse and heartbreaking.  It took people out of the cozy facade of a regular paper company, and spun it around on its axis until it was something less.  A documentary of a paper company which will in turn debut these people’s as a reality series.  This realization on-screen was meant to add a layer of depth to all these Dunder Mifflin lives, but instead it stripped away the mystique that had built for eight seasons.

These Dunder Mifflin-ites of a living, breathing office went from being real people with great stories to actors and actresses in the span of the ninth season.  Things happened, drama ensued, and by the end, very little of the paper company we knew and loved was left.  Everyone had moved on to the big storyline of getting their documentary aired.  Many of the characters quit in-show to go pursue what they felt were meaningful jobs.  They left the office behind to go out and give their hard-earned characters some sort of catharsis.  I didn’t believe any of it, and for the longest time I refused to watch the last season.

Rebooting The Office Will Be Worse Than Retrying The OJ Verdict

Since season nine ran out of ideas for funny office-born pranks, and went along with an arbitrarily more meaningful script, I can definitely tell you what will happen in a season 10.  Three or four of the original cast will come back on as full-timers.  Guys like Steven Carell and Rainn Wilson will not, I suspect.  They know that leaving their characters In Memoraium is the kindest thing they can do.  Who else here was upset at Luke Skywalker’s role in these recent movies?  I think an older Dwight Schrute would have all the earmarks of an unbelievable character.  If Michael Scott were to return, it would only be as a cameo, like he did at the end of the ninth season.  He knew the risk of coming back and associating himself with the final act of The Office.  He did it anyway, and kept his lines short and in-keeping with his character.  That’s the only way to do it.

They could have a whole new cast and crew and try that out, but I see it ending in failure. In the end, every episode would be judged against the original series instead of assuming an identity of its own. In another way, just like we will never have a Kiefer Sutherland led 24 (that’s an good) or a Hugh Laurie run House, we will never see another Steven Carell as Michael Scott again.

As sad as I am to know that, I also know that seasons one through seven of The Office are the greatest depiction of a paper company that will ever be.  I sincerely hope that our children and their children will still look at Michael Scott trying to sign up for a Verizon five friends-and-family plan and wonder why he couldn’t even get Jan to sign on. Michael is a sad, hopeful, if not nostalgic fellow and that’s how it should stay.  Let it be.  NBC, I beg you.  On my hands and knees.  Don’t do it.  Please.