Picks and Pans Review: Empire

UPDATED 07/04/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/04/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT

ABC (Tuesdays, 10 p.m.)

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It's summer, and you and your loved ones are probably enjoying the loose, freeing swish of your togas, recently taken out of storage. Which means this is the perfect season to while away six hours on ABC's mindless yet thumpingly entertaining limited series about the rise of Rome's first emperor, Augustus, born Octavius and nephew to Julius Caesar.

Actually great-nephew, but Empire is blithely indifferent to historical fact. I wouldn't have been surprised if Cassius and Brutus killed Caesar by unleashing the decapitating bunny from Monty Python.

The main fictional invention here is that Caesar hires a gladiator bodyguard named Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake). Well, as we all know, Tyrannus flubs his assignment. Dying of stab wounds on the Senate floor, Caesar whispers one last command: Protect Octavius and guide him to power. But that's no easy thing in 44 B.C. Octavius must outwit and outlive not only Caesar's murderers but also his old friend Marc Antony, played by Vincent Regan with an enjoyable hammy panache. Regan has a face of rugged, military manliness that often goes strangely soft and flabby, as if he'd been caught crying after Sleepless in Seattle. Cake, as Tyrannus, doesn't get to do much but scowl with uncomprehending fury: The furrow between his eyebrows funnels in so deep, it looks as if it could suck in his entire face.

Empire casually filches from everything from Gladiator to Elizabeth to Lord of the Rings. Like Frodo, Octavius indulges in petulant fretting over all the trouble he's causing. You wouldn't expect to mentally link the future Augustus with hairy-footed Frodo, but that's the fun of this sort of pop costume drama, along with the hokey-portentous dialogue. "Reason has fled," says the poet Cicero, "and locusts swarm in the city." Thanks, Cicero, but what about poisonous asps? They deliver an unpleasant conclusion to a summit meeting that devolves into an orgy.

Empire is not so much I, Claudius as Me, Octavius.


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