Claudius (Derek Jacobi, left) and Caligula (John Hurt) bring to dissolute… (Masterpiece Theatre, PBS )
It's been more than 31/2 politically and culturally eventful decades since the BBC debuted "I, Claudius," the now iconic political drama set in ancient Rome that shocked and amazed audiences, first in the United Kingdom and then the United States. The recent release of an anniversary-edition DVD reminded many that no matter how many naked breasts, bloody beheadings or incestuous liaisons"Game of Thrones" or"The Borgias" serve up, no matter how much spiritual and political rot is examined by"Breaking Bad" or "Homeland," there is no topping the vicious intrigues, vindictive violence and general depravity of Rome as depicted first by novelist and historian Robert Graves and then by screenwriter Jack Pullman and director Herbert Wise.
Which is true but beside the point. Or rather it leapfrogs the point. "I, Claudius," which begins another run on KCET on Sunday night, didn't just push the limits of "acceptable" television, it completely changed television, redefining the boundaries of the genre's possibilities and its ambitions. With its complex characters and multi-toned narrative, not to mention the high quality of writing, performance and direction, "I, Claudius"established a timeline that would eventually include the rise of HBO and all its cable competitors. This in turn expanded the palette and quality of network drama and, most recently, persuaded AMC executives to begin original programming.
One could argue that without Claudius, the twitching, limping, stuttering emperor played to genius perfection by Derek Jacobi, there would be no Tony Soprano, no Don Draper, no Vic Mackey, no Gregory House. Without his grandmother Livia (Sian Phillips) there would certainly be no Patty Hewes. The dark side of human nature, the vagaries of fate and the insight that comes through affliction, had never before been so unflinchingly explored on television before.
Not that the show should be considered a museum piece. With a cast chosen apparently by the gods, "I, Claudius" remains as vivid, vital and resonant today as it was more than 31/2 decades ago. Amid the wonders of digital technology, there is, perhaps, a certain old-fashioned theatricality to its look — all interior sets, makeup that puckers around the edges, the unmistakable echo of the soundstage. But the story and most especially the performances set a standard that have seldom been matched, much less surpassed, over the decades.
The real astonishment of "I, Claudius" was never the orgies, the blood or the incest, it wasn't the murderous plots of Livia, the depraved and preening madness of Caligula (John Hurt) or Claudius' fearful wisdom and increasingly calculated "foolishness." It was the show's miraculous ability to make all of these things believable, to tell a story that was epic and emotional, sweeping and intimately human, to examine the ancient world through the lens of modern psychology without sacrificing the time period — we see the choices that led to Caligula but the ink still blots, the boils fester and the chamber pots backsplash.
Told by an elderly Claudius writing a behind-the-scenes history of the Roman government during his lifetime — under Augustus Caesar (Brian Blessed), Tiberius (George Baker), Caligula and finally himself, "I, Claudius" is an intoxicating mix of international politics, dynastic dissolution and brilliantly imagined relationships among some of the most fabulous characters in history.
Those characters, so expertly drawn they can be hideously violent and often very funny, create a story that is grimly depraved one minute, heartfelt and touching the next. Livia, perhaps the most intentionally villainous of the piece, is granted a clear-eyed ruthlessness and, as played by the brilliant Phillips, a wicked sense of humor. Her husband, Augustus, is strong, wise and, by standards of office and time, kind, his only blind spot being his love for his wife. Baker's Tiberius is the fretful, sexually obsessive unfavored second son, slowly dissolving into a syphilitic mess. Pale and weedy, Hurt used Caligula to reinvent the evocation of madness while Jacobi created the ultimate triumphant loser — afflicted, and mocked for his afflictions, he alone is canny enough to survive. It remains a career-defining performance; the stutter alone set a standard to which all similarly cast actors strive.
Although it still seems quite singular, the sandal prints of "I, Claudius" are everywhere, in every TV dynasty or depraved power figure, in every hero whose physical limitations and tragic past bring about increased insight, in any story line crisscrossing the political and the personal. Now television is littered with humanized monsters, broken sages and "real politics"; they are the hallmark of some of our best television, on cable and the networks. The blood and breasts may seem pure HBO, but if Claudius could sing, he'd have fit nicely into the cast of"Glee."Because no matter what comes in the years ahead, there will never be a loser like he.