September 25, 2016


Narrated by Michael Ealy. Various Directors. (2016, 336 min).

When I decided to go back to college, I needed certain basic classes to fulfill the credit requirements for my degree. Since space always fascinated me, I signed up for Astronomy to fulfill my Science requirement. And I fell asleep nearly every day. The teacher was awful, making Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller's Day off seem as manic as Joe Pesci. It takes special skill to make the cosmos dull, which this guy managed in spades.

On the other hand, History was my worst subject in high school and I dreaded having to revisit the past in college. On day one, the teacher, Dr. Shelby, began talking about the Roman Empire and didn't stop for the next nine weeks. No textbook, no tests, just this long-haired old man in a denim jacket verbally sharing history with us, turning it into an epic tale. Dr. Shelby made Roman history come alive and, to this day, he remains one of the greatest speakers I ever heard.

It just goes to show you...presentation is everything.

History Channel's Barbarians Rising, while not quite a fascinating as Dr. Shelby, covers similar ground and does an admirable job turning it into compelling drama.

One thing is certain...Rome certainly had its downfall coming. This four-part docudrama chronicles 700 years of various uprisings against the malevolent Roman Empire. Beginning with Hannibal and ending with a final siege of Rome by Alaric' Visigoth hordes, we witness the slow death of one of history's most enduring civilizations.

Never try to put on your make-up while driving.

As presented here, we definitely side with the barbarians. Rome was an arrogant, cruel empire, taking territories by force, slaughtering or enslaving their opponents and stealing their children to raise as Romans themselves. By the time Rome begins to show signs of weakness (roughly midway through the program), we're pretty much ready to see them get what's coming. In that sense, Barbarians Rising could arguably be considered the world's longest revenge film.

Michael Ealy narrates the proceedings, which include commentary by several historians (though I'm unclear how Reverend Jesse Jackson qualifies), who offer their expertise to help explain the importance of specific events. What they have to say is interesting, but what really makes these episodes work are the lengthy (sometimes bloody) dramatic reenactments. While the performances by a cast of relative unknowns range from suitably brooding to overwrought, the action and battle scenes are pretty impressive for a TV show. That, along with Ealy's narration and periodical CG animations charting army movements, sort-of renders these experts' commentary unnecessary and intrusive (like your dog spoiling the mood by jumping on the bed).

Still, after a slow start, Barbarians Rising manages to suck the viewer in like a good drama or documentary always does. By the final episode, we're more than ready to see Rome go down as violently as possible (which it does). I haven't talked to Dr. Shelby in over 20 years, but I think he'd approve.


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