I wrote this post last year and then forgot to post it… as the second season has been announced, I thought now was as good a time as any to post it. Enjoy!
I’m sure most of you picked up on the ITV2 show Plebs that finished its first season recently. I’m not planning to say a great deal about individual episodes – Juliette Harrison has done that much more eloquently and systematically already – but I did want to make a few observations, not least because this is the first Roman-based television series to be done for a while in UK television. It’s playing with a couple of traditions of British comedy – when the series was first announced, parallels were drawn with Chelmsford 123, while in execution it definitely acknowledges its debt to a particular form of British awkward comedy serials like Gavin and Stacey and The IT Crowd. So, how successful was it?
Time to invoke the first rule of classical reception – this is not about accuracy and whether the slum hovel that the boys rent is an accurate representation of slum hovels in ancient Rome. Plebs made no secret of the fact that it saw itself as primarily being about what would happen if you took modern people and stuck them in Rome – it’s not interested in doing the sort of thing that even Spartacus: Blood and Sand does in exploring the life of a gladiator, sex, brutality and all (and also far fewer intentional laughs, but I digress). It’s not particularly interested in getting historical accuracy – but it does capture some very Roman attitudes, and once the series gets going it starts to engage with some elements of historical fact in interesting ways.
That ‘once the series gets going’ is quite important, to me at least – I found that I enjoyed the series a lot more once the pace had settled down and the writers had got the bodily function stuff out of the way. Humour is one of those very personal things, I know, and I don’t mean to seem prudish, but scatological jokes have always been a negative for me, and I did get perilously close to not finishing the series after That Scene With The Togas. However, it seems as if the writers were having a bit of an insecurity moment, and once they’d got past that phase, the jokes started to feel funnier.
One of the benefits of the ‘sod it, we’re never going to win the authenticity battle so let’s not even bother trying’ approach was that the series does tell us an awful lot about what people think Rome looks like now and what it stands for. For instance, despite the fact the series is set very explicitly in 27 B.C., Rome is apparently governed by an emperor. An unnamed mad emperor who imports a shedload of cats to get rid of the rodent infestation, followed by a shedload of dogs to get rid of the shedload of cats. Also, Rome is mainly the forum, quite a lot of columns, some parchment, and tunics. Oh, and orgies. That the first episode decides to engage with this well-worn trope of Roman life is somewhat of a territory-staking move – here we are, look how Very Roman and Decadent we’re being – but in such a way that takes those tropes and does something a bit new with them. Because the protagonists seeking to go to an orgy have no idea what one actually involves, so all the audience shares their total ignorance of what actually happens as well as their feverish imaginations about what might happen.
This builds on the choice to make none of the protagonists insiders. Marcus, his slave Grumio and his mate Stylax have only been in the city six weeks when they meet Cynthia and her slave Metella, fresh from Britain. So we get to see a group of lads terribly keen on getting the most out of urban life in an exciting capital city where they don’t quite know the rules, working in menial office jobs, thinking they know it all and actually just not, and trying to get together with girls just as clueless as them. Well, a girl as clueless as them. Metella is a pretty tough cookie. That the lads aren’t as suave as they’re trying to be is a constant trope – Stylax gets Cynthia’s gladiator boyfriend killed by shouting at the wrong time, Marcus tries to give Cynthia and Metella a tour around the city but has no idea what anything is, the plot of the final episode is driven by the lads not wanting to miss the big Saturnalia Gong for their first Roman new year. That writing choice means that the characters are always a bit wrong-footed by life in Rome, in a way that’s very similar to the audience themselves.
I do think that the final two episodes were the best and funniest, not to mention the most thematically coherent. The fifth episode dealt with the boys’ landlord subletting the apartment to a couple of Thracians, leading to the pun ‘what, are you being Thracist?’, and may well lead to exam answers that claim that the Romans imported bananas and pineapples from Thrace (here’s a clue – they didn’t). The whole episode thought a bit about what it would be like to live in a city where the conquering of new bits of territory meant a steady stream of people from strange and interesting countries, and how being part of an empire would affect the day to day lives of regular citizens, in an interesting and fun way that worked really well. Similarly, the sixth episode basically went ‘so, Roman religion, then’, and pulled in the Saturnalia, what happens to animal sacrifices, and the cult of Cybele. I never thought I would find myself typing ‘wow, that cult of Cybele joke was hilarious’, but yes, it was.
So, where does all this leave us? Plebs clearly isn’t aiming for accuracy, and in part can jettison the sort of accuracy of things like Rome and Gladiator: Blood and Sand because it’s trying to do comedy, not high ‘quality’ drama. It’s settled down into its rhythm, and has characters who allow the unfamiliarity of the city (however unauthentic) to become the foil for the laughs. But most importantly – it has Flavia. The settled-in, competent office manager who makes the lives of Marcus and Stylax – well, not a living hell, but certainly rather more interesting than they would otherwise be. She is probably my favourite character of the lot, and is everything that the boys wish they were – worldly-wise, imbued with the decadence of Rome, wealthy, successful, a real Roman insider. It’s the fact that she is as exaggerated as she is that makes her so much fun, almost as if she’s wandered off the set of Quo Vadis as an guest at Nero’s banquet to get back to the day job. Of course, in strict Roman class terms, she probably isn’t as elevated as she’s coming across – no mention has been made of senatorial background yet, and we all know that to operate in trade was utterly infra dig. But she might well be somebody’s somebody for doing business without getting their hands dirty, and thence the connection and the status. I know it’s rather rich for me to end a review I started with a warning about historical accuracy with a bit of a possible reconstruction of a character’s place in the actual Roman class structure, but humour me. She’s an absolute gem of a character, and now that the writers have settled down into their stride, I hope we get to see more of her and the rest of the gang in a second series.