Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Plebs: Saturnalia


For its first series finale, Plebs gives us Christmas in April, telling a story set during one of my favourite Roman festivals, the Saturnalia.

Most Roman-set stories that cover the Saturnalia portray it as the Roman equivalent of Christmas, for the fairly logical reason that it's where some of our Christmas traditions come from, and part of the reason we celebrate Christmas on 25th December. Plebs, however, takes a different approach and assimilates it to the modern Western celebration of New Year's, complete with their own version of Times Square on New Year's Eve and the idea that people kiss at midnight. Having already covered one of the Saturnalia's best known elements - slaves and masters swapping places - in an earlier episode, there's very little of the actual Saturnalia left other than Cynthia's straw animals and the time of year, plus the general party atmosphere, which is pretty accurate.

Part of the reason for this is that the series plays down any religious elements of the festival. There's a nice tension running throughout the episode between poor, superstitious Cynthia's terror at being cursed by a street-corner soothsayer and Grumio's total lack of concern for the gods on the grounds that they don't exist (and it's always nice to see ancient unbelief depicted in popular culture, as popular stories too often assume that everyone in the ancient world believed in every myth and every tradition). Since the writing leans firmly in Grumio's direction, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is current secular celebrations, rather than religious ones, that form the basis of the episode. More importantly, of course, Marcus is driven throughout the story by his desire to get a chance to kiss Cynthia at midnight, leading to a nice final gag which helps prevent this story from feeling too much like Friends in togas.

Grumio's story in this episode didn't work so well for me. It starts off with him stealing meat from religious sacrifices, which makes no sense at all because apart from a few vital organs, the meat from religious sacrifices in Rome was eaten at a sacrificial banquet. The Greeks and Romans were not stupid and they did not throw away tonnes of perfectly good meat on the gods. The Greeks even had a whole myth to explain why the gods got the bones and not the meat. Then Grumio nearly gets taken off to Cyprus by a cult who want to castrate him (which happened in the secretive mystery cult of Cybele, according to a slightly hysterical poem by Catullus). Which is fine, except that Grumio is a slave, so the cult aren't recruiting him so much as stealing him from Marcus. I know I'm not supposed to complain about historical inaccuracy, but this plotline just left me a bit cold, not to mention it included some rather poor taste jokes as well (though I did like the way the costume department had dressed the cult priests half in Christian monk-like robes and half in Buddhist monk-like robes - inaccurate, but rather fun).

Luckily Marcus and Sylax's plot is more successful and involves them teaming up with Water-Man, which is always nice. Cynthia's plot, though thin, is also fun and allows the episode to open with a lovely homage to Monty Python's Life of Brian as we meet a doom-mongering old crone (and there were a lot of prophecies about the end of the world and, if we believe the poets, a lot of soothsaying old crones around in Rome as well, so that works). Her logic concerning the 'accident' that's going to befall her and her conviction that if Landlord had done his job properly she would have had a worse accident was wonderful. There was some nice snappy dialogue in this episode too - I particularly enjoyed Stylax's optimistic assertion to Marcus that soon, 'You'll get with Cynthia, I'll get with everybody else!' and Landlord's insistence that the reason for the damp in one of the rooms was that it's 'a wet room.'

All in all, a fun end to the series, and fingers crossed ITV will give it a second shot, if only in the hope that poor Marcus can finally catch a break and get at least a hug from Cynthia.

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10 comments:

  1. My fave bits: the crone was FAB. Loved her "mad eyes"; ersatz one-armed fake crone a fun gag; waterclock Yay! with numbers Boo! but at least Roman numerals lol! Getting water boy... er waterMAN to set it an hour ahead was a fun idea. They should have been wearing Saturnalia caps! Missed a good chance for fun there. Loved Grumio's line "I wasn't listening to the crone; I was listening to the donut guy." Lots of wacky fun. Just wish they would riff on more of the comic potential of real historical trivia!

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    1. I loved that Marcus needed Water Man's expertise to fiddle with the water clock! I liked the crone a lot too, she was very funny :)

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  2. I think I disagree with you - I really liked the Grumio/cult of Cybele storyline! I thought it gradually introduced the whole 'hi, strange Roman-ness' for the sort-of-outsiders that Marcus, Stylax and Grumio still are really nicely. Actually, the whole episode seemed structured around Roman religion and its oddities - the superstition, the sacrifices and the Saturnalia - in a way that played together very nicely from a thematic point of view, something that the first episodes lacked.

    I will also admit, with no shame, to loving Flavia. Particularly her final appearance, which made me giggle :)

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    1. I like Flavia too :) I think I just couldn't get over the whole idea that everyone was throwing away all the good meat, which sort of soured me on the storyline - and there were some weird abuse-based jokes in the middle of it that I guess I just didn't get. I think I'd rather meet someone like Catullus' Attis and explore it that way. I really liked the contrast between Grumio's unbelief (I'm picky about the word 'atheism' in a Roman context!) and Cynthia's superstition though.

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  3. Because, as you say, Juliette, Romans DID share the sacrificial meat with the poor as well as with priests and then went on to sell anything left over to butchers who then sold it on to the public... Hence the whole thing in the New Testament about should you eat meat that has been consecrated to the gods!

    I just think this series would be so much better if they kept it more accurate with a few silly exceptions like bananas which are patently not possible. For example they could have had Grumio searching in his pockets and then saying "They haven't been invented yet."

    IN many ways it reminds me of my all time fave film about Romans: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. But that was extremely accurate in many ways.

    [Plebs writers, if you're reading this I'll be your free consultant! lol!]

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    1. My favourite joke in Maid Marian was about the elastic band that hadn't been invented yet :)

      I agree - blatantly daft stuff or things like a Roman version of Time Square and the ball dropping don't bother me. I guess it's when something like that is the whole basis for a plot that it annoys me, or when it's something that people are likely to misinterpret and think is accurate. I did like the depiction of horror at the idea of incest and unbelief though, those were both really refreshing!

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    2. (and while my services are not necessarily available for free as I have no money and no work over the summer, I will do *paid* consultancy! ;) )

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  4. I think the last episode was a great end to a fab series. :)

    A lot of the Saturnalia customs didn't really seem very historically accurate though (comparing them to what I've read) whih was quite annoying. Flavia's party seemed more like a New Year's Eve party :( The only thing I recognised was the slaves switching places with their masters tradition. No big mention of the King of Saturnalia tradition which I think would've been great to see.So many story arc possibilities. Marcus etc could've got revenge on Flavia ;)

    I really hope that there is a second series!

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    1. Good point - I'd like to see Metella as Queen of the Saturnalia I think!

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  5. Frankly any program that can work the Cybele cult into the story line (and be a comedy at the same time) is pretty damn good.. too much carping here... one episode of this series has more "A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome" than high school students would get in six years of history classes. Be thankful for small mercies....

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