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Toga!

ABC’s epic Roman mini-series Empire steers just clear of camp, providing a bloody good time.

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If you have only 60 minutes to devote this summer to the death of the Roman Republic, make it the second Tuesday in July, which is the third Tuesday and the fourth hour of the swords-and-sandals mini-series Empire. This hour, titled The Hunt, should instead have been called Orgies and Asps. Not only do we spend some quality time in Marc Antony’s villa, lolling about and licking one another’s abs and pecs while Mad Marc turns his cruciform bathtub into a kind of immersion therapy, but then we go to bed with poisoned snakes.

Julius Caesar (Colm Feore) has only recently (44 B.C.) been stabbed to death by Cassius (Michael Maloney), who does indeed look lean and hungry, and Brutus (James Frain), whose ears stick out. But before Big Jules crosses the ultimate Rubicon, his dying words to the bodyguard/gladiator Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake) instruct this noblest of noodles to protect Caesar’s nephew and heir, Octavius (Santiago Cabrera), from his many enemies in the Senate. About Tyrannus, you should know that he used to be a free man before he stole a centurion’s horseand that he is almost as good at slicing and dicing as Uma Thurman. About Octavius, you probably already know that he grows up to be the emperor Augustus, with a whole age named after him by such obliging publicists as Horace and Virgil. But that will require a civil war. Until then, he looks like a hobbit, except more callow and less courageous.

I ought also to mention the Vestal Virgin Camane (Emily Blunt), who sounds in voice-overs like Audrey Hepburn but who looks on camera more like Tinkerbell. She leaves the temple in Rome to care for Octavius, and a lot of good it doesn’t do her. An even bigger loser is poor Tyrannus, minus a wife, a son, and the wooden sword that would have signified the end of his vile servitude. I won’t bother with the liberties that the screenwriting executive producers Thomas Wheeler and Chip Johannessen take with the life of, say, Cicero (Michael Byrne), because at least they’ve come up with a script, which is more than Ridley Scott managed to do for Russell Crowe in Gladiator, a sort of High Noon with togas. If none of the characters in Empire sounds like Shakespeare, neither are any of them nearly as embarrassing as everybody in Cecil B. DeMille or Ben-Hur. And the look of the mini-series, filmed as it was all over south-central Italy, is surprisingly big-screen. Yes, there is a regrettable cross-cutting Godfather ripoff during the ides of March, but there is an agreeable tendency otherwise, under the arches, toward dreamy melt, like a surrealist ice-cream cone.

Meanwhile: Horses! Chariots! Falcons! Mobs! Blood in buckets and heads on pikes! Opium and boys! You can do anything with swords except sit on them, says a perfidious Marc Antony, which may be why his wife, Fulvia (a deliciously vampy Fiona Shaw), tells gloomy-gus Tyrannus, I always leave before the orgy.

Where one should stamp one’s foot is at the mindless Caesarism, as if Julius had been some sort of Sun Yat-sen or Zapata. But mindless Caesarism is apparently our Zeitgeist, as Douglas MacArthur is our kind of Howdy Doody.

Just when I was prepared to apologize to the producers of Monk for the terrible things I said about them last year after they kicked Sharona (Bitty Schram) overboardTraylor Howard as Natalie, Tony Shalhoub’s substitute assistant, turned out to be nifty after allthey choose to launch their fourth season with an episode full to overexposure of Jason Alexander. Alexander plays a private eye every bit as neurotic as Monk, though more inclined to smell dogs, eat mud, call his mother on the telephone, and mug for the TV news cameras. So, for an hour, instead of Monk’s being brilliant and weird, we get Monk’s being jealous and mean. Even when Alexander’s remarkable powers of deduction are at last explained (and the explanation is a genuinely ingenious one), we have been made to dislike our hero. And who needs the heartbreak of that psoriasis?

Empire
ABC. Tuesdays at 9 P.M.
Premieres June 28.


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