Tuned In

Spoiled by History

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I’ve been working my way through some upcoming episodes of HBO’s Rome, which, even though it’s taken a few critical shots this season, I still find lushly entertaining. (Next week, by the way, we finally get one of those lavish battle scenes that people have whinged that the show is missing–Philippi–and it’s a doozy.)

My opinion from my original review hasn’t changed much: I’m still far more captivated by the actual historical figures than by personal dramas of the made-up Vorenus and Pullo. But why is that? At least the fate of those fictional soldiers is unknown and could surprise us. But unless the series suddenly careens off the historical track (more than its usual fiddling with the details and chronology), we know pretty much exactly what will happen with the Roman Republic and its political players. (SPOILER ALERT: Octavian wins!)

It’s odd, because anyone who writes about TV, especially online, knows that people are extremely sensitive about spoilers, in this era of TiVo and waiting-for-the-DVD. But TV’s prestige channels have been making more historical series, about actual characters whose fates you can remember from high-school history or learn from a quick trip to Wikipedia. Deadwood had a passionate following, even though–while it fictionalized plenty about its characters–the ultimate fate of the mining camp was no secret. In April, Showtime debuts The Tudors, a series set in the court of Henry VIII, whose turns you can find in the historical record or by listening to an old Herman’s Hermits single.

Could it be that spoilers are overrated? I often keep a backlog of shows as a critic, so I often get plot details spoiled for me before I watch; other times, I learn key spoilers when reporting a feature. Yet I almost never fail to watch, or enjoy, an episode of a series that I really like anyway, even if I know what is going to happen. In Rome, I didn’t care that Julius Caesar was going to bite it at the end of season 1. What I like is watching the machinations play out, and relishing the expensively-recreated details of Roman life: the propagandistic town crier whose biases shift with the political winds, the servant kneeling in the mud so his master can step on his back to mount a horse. And, oh yes–bring on the orgies!

Is this something that’s unique to historical fiction? Is it the same protective amnesia that lets us enjoy re-watching a favorite movie for the dozenth time? Most important, any Rome fans plan on watching The Tudors, or do you prefer togas to tights?