Nero Played a Lyre
From the very first segment of the introductory episode of Ancients Behaving Badly, it’s clear what sort of show this History Channel offering is, and it’s probably not what sort of show it’s aiming to be. There’s not a hint of humor in the narrator’s intonation as he announces, “Caligula: Poster boy for sociopaths everywhere!” Right away, there are at least two things wrong. First, you can almost hear the Law & Order clanging scene change sound that surely followed this statement in the writer’s head. Second, Caligula was not a sociopath (and, anyway, a sociopath is his own poster boy, he doesn’t need Mr. Little-Boots-and-Big-Bloodlust to look up to)!
Rather than coming across as a historical procedural (CSI: The Roman Empire), Ancients Behaving Badly seems more like a late-night airing of a lurid, celebrity gossip show. Not TMZ for the BC set exactly; it’s more like an antediluvian Inside Edition, complete with reenactments, but surely you could tell that simply from the title?
Sarcasm aside, this two DVD set features eight episodes, each devoted to the exploration of the supposed psychological state of one of the world’s great leaders. Disc one profiles Caligula, Attila the Hun, Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great. Disc two examines Nero, Hannibal, Genghis Khan, and Cleopatra. Graphic novel-style representations of these figures and their exploits accompany the voice-overs, and these are quite good. In fact, they may be the best part of the show, even though they tend to get repetitive.
Each episode of Ancients Behaving Badly follows the same formula, briefly relating the surviving tales or available historical documentation of various exploits; consulting with experts, including forensic specialists, historians and archaeologists; visiting the modern days sites of important events; attempting to recreate weapons, conditions, and feats of battle in order to prove or disprove the likelihood of legendary acts (for instance, could Cleopatra have possibly drank a dissolved pearl during a dinner party?) and finally, letting psychiatrist David Mallott, determine a rating on the “Behaving Badly Psycho-graph”.
The graph positions the ancients at various points between “Goal Driven Killer” and “Psychopathic Killer” on the Y-axis, with their other personality disorders, such as sexual dominance or narcissism somewhere out on the X-axis. Of course, none of these things are shown to intercept, so there’s no point to having the graph in the first place, which is disappointing because it’s been billed as Ancients’ main attraction. While the psycho-graph is displayed on screen, Dr. Mallott explains the subject’s probable diagnosis (Caligula was a “stone cold psychopath”) and mentions other famous leaders who are comparable (Caligula apparently resembles Heinrich Himmler). Although that information is intriguing, its presentation is just too annoying to be taken seriously.
Which brings us back to the silly attempts to make the show relevant to our current celebrities-and-snappy-sound-bites-obsessed culture. One or two pop culture references could be considered cute and clever, such as when Caligula’s captor/mentor Tiberius is likened to a Bond villain for his practice of throwing enemies to their deaths over the cliffs surrounding his isolated and heavily fortified lair. When Caligula is also compared to a Bond baddie and, later, Julius Caesar is identified with 007 himself (“He’s a carpe diem kind of guy…” Yeah, and when he isn’t in bed with other peoples’ wives, he’s always up for some genocide!), the comparisons start to lose any relevance they might have had.
Yet the references don’t stop there. At one point, Caligula is called “the Freddy Krueger of ancient Rome”. Caesar is deemed a “Sexy Beast” in obvious allusion to the Ben Kingsley film. Several of the men are equated to mafia dons and Cleopatra is basically portrayed as a party-girl and a scheming, social-climbing starlet (Her reality show might have been called Keeping Up with the Ptolemies). The most cringe-worthy comparison occurs when one of the so-called experts states, quite earnestly, that Atilla the Hun “makes Hannibal Lector look like Mother Teresa”.
That’s too much. It’s insulting to the audience, not to mention Mother Teresa. It destroys any shred of credibility the production possessed.
The DVD menus are simple and straightforward. Each episode’s individual menu allows the viewer to access scenes, which are divided where commercials might naturally be in broadcast, separately. Beyond that, these discs contain no extras.
Although it’s possible some viewers will learn a few interesting facts about these legendary historical figures despite the program’s presentation, the tone of tabloid sensationalism makes Ancients Behaving Badly less like History and more like E! True Hollywood Story.