When in Rome, ABC can’t do as the ancient Romans did.

The current furor over television indecency obviously limits “Empire,” a lavish drama about the power struggle after Julius Caesar’s assassination. The program uses quick, flashy editing to suggest gladiatorial violence and orgiastic hanky-panky.

Yet the six-hour miniseries, starting Tuesday, feels limited in other, more profound ways. The story, a liberal mix of history and fiction, takes adventurous leaps that strain credulity. The main fiction is Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake), a gladiator whose presence evokes the Oscar-winning, and far-superior, “Gladiator.”

The political intrigue unfolds in a muddled manner as practiced by these mostly tepid figures. As for the juicy viciousness that permeated “I, Claudius” – the landmark miniseries about Roman emperors – the “Empire” characters still seem to have on their training wheels when it comes to portraying nastiness.

“Empire” looks good even when it doesn’t sound authentic. The Italian countryside receives a tourism-boosting showcase, and the miniseries rolls out first-class costumes and sets.

The best way to approach “Empire” is as a lavish warm-up to other programs. Cake, who suffers as Tyrannus, displays a more roguish style as a fertility-clinic doctor in “Inconceivable,” an NBC drama for fall.

HBO will unveil its own take on Julius Caesar in “Rome,” a 12-episode fall drama. On premium cable that program will not have to worry about tidying up the nudity, mayhem and scheming.

On ABC, the road to Rome is paved with Hollywood cliches, and “Empire” hits most of them.

It’s 44 B.C., and Tyrannus’ brilliance as a fighter prompts Caesar (Colm Feore) to enlist the gladiator as bodyguard. Tyrannus stumbles on the job when kidnappers take his son. Tyrannus goes after them, leaving the boss at the mercy of stab-happy senators.

The dying ruler asks Tyrannus to protect his chosen heir, 18-year-old nephew Octavius (Santiago Cabrera).

“Teach him how to fight, my friend,” Caesar pleaded. “Teach him how to rule.”

“Empire” then becomes the far-fetched travels of mismatched companions. Harsh he-man Tyrannus and boyish brat Octavius go on the run, overcome dire predicaments and sort out the intrigue. Hundreds of cops and cowboys have moseyed down a similar trail.

Tyrannus displays lightning reflexes and daunting stamina. Octavius graduates from sullen playboy to eloquent politician. The two actors tackle their heroic chores with gusto, but “Empire” reduces history to a trite action movie.

The writing and acting render the duo’s foes less formidable than they should be. Brutus (James Frain) comes off as a fearful mama’s boy. Cassius (Michael Maloney) emerges as a tiresome prig. Mark Antony (Vincent Regan) is a burly sleaze, not someone to command his countrymen’s attention.

On the plus side, Fiona Shaw enjoys herself as Fulvia, Antony’s ambitious, crafty wife. Dennis Haysbert, the former president on “24,” puts in a forceful appearance as Magonius, a Roman general. Emily Blunt is touching as Camane, a vestal virgin who supports Octavius. If she seems too good to be true, that’s because she’s fictional as well.



EMPIRE

Cast: Jonathan Cake, Santiago Cabrera, Dennis Haysbert, Colm Feore, James Frain.

Where and when: This six-hour ABC series debuts from 9 to 11 p.m. EDT Tuesday June 28. The other four hours air at 10 p.m. EDT Tuesdays, starting July 5.



Hal Boedeker: hboedekerorlandosentinel.com



(c) 2005, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-06-24-05 0853EDT


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