From the moment Julius Caesar comes charging into Rome looking every inch a midlevel account manager on his way to a company-sponsored Sandals vacation, it’s clear Empire is not of greatness made. ABC’s six-hour miniseries — about the murder of Caesar (Colm Feore) and the rise of his pampered teen nephew Octavius (Santiago Cabrera) — needs to be grandiose and gutsy to justify its running time. Instead, Empire arrived with a weakling whiff on it, ABC plunking it down in summer and avoiding an autumn battle with HBO’s competing epic Rome.
An off-season debut is fitting for Empire, which is staged on a series of vaguely ancient sets and plagued by continuity and logic problems. ”Walk with me,” Julius Caesar says to gladiator Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake), and leads him from his midnight slave quarters…out into a distant field of golden wheat, shining in the noonday sun. (Those yellow fields are one of many nods to Gladiator.) Caesar wants the support of popular Tyrannus — a fictional character — in order to win the love of the people, but the plotting senators kill Caesar before the transaction is complete. As Caesar dies in Tyrannus’ arms, he begs him to protect young Octavius, and ”teach him how to rule.” Which is an odd request to make of a slave. Regardless, towering Tyrannus and wispy Octavius Mutt-‘n’-Jeff it into exile as they strategize Octavius’ return.
If you let some of the ridiculousness — and there’s plenty — slide, Empire can be fun, particularly early on. Caesar’s assassination, with the senators in a swirling, stabbing pack, is darkly elegant. Vincent Regan has a lusty time as treacherous, avid bather Marc Antony. And ancient Rome, with its powermongers and plotters, is a hard-to-muff subject.
But Empire ultimately cracks, largely due to its desperate grab at every single demographic. Assuming women need ”entry points” to swordy, martial movies, Empire has thrust upon us a vestal virgin (Emily Blunt) who’s got modern, girl-powered opinions and a crush on wussy Octavius. (Perhaps she was a charter subscriber to Lisa Simpson’s Non-Threatening Boys Magazine.) Then there’s the let’s-have-it-both-ways combo of manly, stoic Tyrannus and pretty, slight Octavius, the former sure to appeal to grown-up Russell Crowe fans, the latter to tween oglers of Orlando Bloom.
But by saddling Octavius with this studly foil, Empire ensures the ruler-to-be seems always a kid, rather than the finest of the Caesars, as many scholars believe. Despite fits of manhood — he raises his voice in the obligatory rally-the-troops scene — Octavius never fully matures, never shows glimpses of brilliance, mercy, charisma, or anything else Caesaresque. Thus Empire is not the story of a boy’s journey into manhood, and certainly, absolutely not of a boy ”who became a god” as the narrator suggests. No, it’s the story of a boy who was aided by a fictional, white-robed chick and an imaginary former slave, thus becoming a…boy with real estate. And we become Empire‘s biggest losers, because we’ve invested six hours in the twerp.
Empire (2005 TV miniseries)